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Interview with Stifled Artist and the Last Christmas, 2001

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Interview with Stifled Artist and the Last Christmas, 2001

Gave an interview for Kyrsten Bean at the stifled artist ( Kyrsten sought me out after reading some of my work in assorted lowlife journals (and I mean that as the highest compliment), places like Underground Voices ( and Railroad Poetry Project (, where she is currently featured as the Poet of the Month.  Kyrsten and I have been making the rounds together (along with Tom Pitts) in several journals (most of which, interestingly enough, seem to be located in the UK), and she recently read for Lip Service West (where we pledge to feature "at least one Pitts at every reading; this is our promise to you"), performing a rousing, spirited, depressing, yet oddly uplifting piece about life in a rehab, my favorite genre.  You'll see in the interview as I talk about the Beats that one of the things I love best about Kerouac and Co. is the tight-knit, supportive community they formed, a safe enclave where they took care of their own against a cruel and uncaring capitalist world.  Which has been happening of late with Tom, Kyrsten, and me.  I know.  How very meta.

It's always nice when someone reaches out and asks for your opinion because what you write moves them.  I was honored Kyrsten asked, and you'll be able to see all our work (Tom, her, me) next month in PoV (, which I'll be sure to pimp the shit out out of.

In the meantime, here's that interview:


The holidays always brings it out of me.  It's hard not to get nostalgic when you look at how far you've come. Or maybe "nostalgic" isn't the right word.  But "appreciative" and grateful" don't quite cut it either.  There's a strange mix of fondness and pride that goes with the recollection of the misery of those final few months in SF, waiting for the end to come, waiting while I cashed those phony checks to pay for a few more nights at the Casa Loma, waiting for the dope I'd need to get through another day, waiting with my girlfriend, Becky.  Just killing time...

I wrote a few weeks back about a particularly awful Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen in the Haight (  I couldn't remember the exact year, or who was actually there with me.  Like so much of that time, that Thanksgiving was a blur (besides the key detail of a nice girl and cigarettes).  When I started writing all this stuff down back in 2002, I was still in the hospital, a long-term dual diagnosis rehab lockdown ward, and the memories would come in flashes and bursts; nothing seemed to be happening on a straight line.  Which I thought might be a cool way to tell the story. (It wasn't.  But what else could I do?  I lacked perspective.)

As the years rolled on by (and we were a long way from jamming in my garage), I thought a chronology would present itself.  It never did.  I'd recall friendships and events that simply couldn't have happened in the order I remembered them.  Which is owed to a combination of the drugs, trauma, and the brain damage/memory loss that is common when you live the way I was living.  At least, that's what the doctors told me.

But the Christmas of 2001, that I remember.

I felt it all coming to a head.  And it would, less than two months later, when I'd find myself 3,000 miles from San Francisco, fresh off a Greyhound, with a warrant out for my arrest, in a strange part of Albany, NY, without shoes, about to jump...

Becky and I had a room at the Casa Loma Hotel, over there on Fillmore, in Hayes Valley.  This was upscale for us, about as good as it got, and a far better option than the Sixth Street, SRO Hotels of Crack Central.  There was a shower that worked down the hall, and relatively little blood on the ceiling.  We could never afford to stay there long.  A whole month cost somewhere around $800.  We easily generated that much income, especially because we'd been doing the check scam for so long, each one of those bogus things coming in at $795 a pop (more than $800 bumped the crime into a much more serious category).  But there's no way people like us were shelling out $800 for a place to live.  Which is kinda like not paying more than $25/hr. for a housecleaner or $20 for a pie nowadays; you may have it, but there is something offensive about forking that much over for goods and services for which you've already set an irrational, arbitrary price.  Which reminds me of something Tom Pitts once said.  I was complaining about the cost of heroin, and Tom laughed. "It wouldn't make a difference if heroin cost a penny, Joe," he said.  "It just means we'd have bigger habits."

But we'd been popped, both Becky and I, for the check scam.  And we'd plead out. 30 days of SWAP.  That's the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program.  All things considered, it was more than a fair deal, considering the money we'd stolen.  But like being incapable of coughing up $800 for a place to stay, we were incapable of showing up at 7 a.m. to sweep the side of the road.  And once we violated the conditions of the deal, we'd be locked up.  In a prison.  A real prison, not county.  I didn't look then like I do now.  I was about 40 lbs. lighter.  The only way you were getting 17-inch biceps out of my arms in those days was if you taped them both together and shook me really hard.  If I were sent to prison, I'd be sold for a deck of playing cards before midnight.

I had to leave the city or I'd be going to jail.  The deadline for this decision was January 1st.

When time is ticking down like that, you become hyper-aware of every moment.  I loved Becky very much.  It was a sick, sad, twisted and desperate love.  (But stalking is still love, and psychos still hurt.)  And I knew I was losing her.  Like I'd lost my wife.  Like I'd lost so many others I'd loved.  And it hurt.

We woke up sick and broke.  And being Christmas Day, well, that's sort of like blogging on the weekend. In the words of Greg Kim: everything shuts down.  There was no scam we were running on Christmas Day.  No CDs or clothes to sell.  No old friends to drop in on and conspire with.  We were stuck, with at least 24 hours more until we could get some game rolling again; and dopesick, emaciated, and hungry is no way to spend the holidays.

I know I tried to call my mom and beg for money ("But, Mom, it's Christmas!"), and there was this rich Russian douche named Andre who almost needed me to score for him (which was always a nice payday).  But neither of these panned out.  All I could do was call my guy, tell him I had money, and refuse to get out of the car until he gave me something.  This wasn't an ideal option since it could only work once, if at all, and the deeper I got into that life, the rougher and meaner the dealers were; and there weren't many left who'd still deal with me.  It was a scorched earth approach.  This last guy I was working with, Paco, he didn't like me much.

When I got in his car and he soon realized I had no money, he began screaming and making like he was reaching for a gun in the backseat.  I wonder if he eventually gave up because he thought I realized he didn't have a gun back there.  But that wasn't it.  At that point, I just didn't care one way or another.

Two outs in the bottom of the 9th, the ol' midget play.


I think that's why that particular Christmas sticks with me so hard, why I can still see the off-white, cracked walls, the cans of soup Becky's mother had sent in a care package and which we were forced to open with a screwdriver and eat cold because the clerk downstairs wouldn't let use the microwave in the office; why I can still see the brilliant clear winter blue as I walked along those dead Christmas streets on my way to meet a connection.  Because one way or another, go to prison, clean up, live, die, it didn't matter; that life was ending, and whatever came next could not possibly be worse.

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