A Little Shelter

Michael J. O’Connor
Featured Image: Land of Iona 4 © Jennifer Wortham 2019

I hated taking the bus from San Francisco to my hometown in the North Bay. It was a coach of misery. I would get on at one of the first stops of the route and get off at the very last one, often at night with a long walk to my parents’ house still left even after the three-hour trip. There were no bathrooms on the bus, and I had left my fair share of bottles of warm piss sitting on the floor, hoping that someone would find them and think maybe it was time to put some toilets on these things, if for no other reason than to stop the piss bottles.

I preferred to sit in the Trophy Room, an end-of-line, perpetually sticky dive bar across the street, to watch for the bus, but tonight I could only afford the couple of forty-ouncers I usually took to keep me company on these long trips. I sat on the corner of Market and 6th street under the plastic bus shelter, cradling a brown bag of St. Ides and waiting. The leaves that fell from the trees were gummy, matted together with the drippings from the buildings that shot up all around me. I had called the Tenderloin home for a couple of years, and was used to the filth that I waded around in on my way to and from various focus groups and medical studies that I would scour Craigslist for, just trying to survive. Tonight I actually had bus fare. I felt secure for the long trip back home with a second forty-ounce in my backpack. As I gulped the warm beer, a man walked past the shelter and took a hit off of his crack pipe, confident that his secret would be safe with me. He was right. I raised my bottle to him as he shuffled along Market Street, disappearing into the night.

I didn’t notice the cops right away. They drove past constantly, and one of the nice things about living in the Tenderloin was that any of my shady late-night dealings were usually covered up by the shadier dealings of others. There is a freedom that comes along with living in squalor and nightmarish poverty in that it is easy to blend into the background. You become one small piece of a large, incomplete puzzle. I noticed as they drove past the second and third times, though. I got more careful of my gulps of beer and started setting the brown-bagged bottle on the ground next to me for plausible deniability, in case for some reason they decided to give me grief. It was a trick that I had never had to use. They weren’t going to trip about someone killing time waiting for a bus back to the suburbs.

The fourth time they drove by, though, I was right in the middle of a long pull off the bottle, looking up into the sky and letting it run down my throat, not noticing that they had stopped and were now staring at me from the smoked glass of the passenger side window. Once I saw them, I abruptly dropped my hand with the bottle to my side and made direct eye contact. There was no time for my fool-proof plan of telling them that the bottle wasn’t mine, that it had been left there, perhaps by some unsavory character. At first I froze and held the bottle in my hand. There was a chance that maybe they were eyeing someone else. There were people everywhere and I figured the odds were in my favor that they would be distracted by some more pressing matter and move on, but they just sat there. Two fat cops out for a patrol that had led them straight to me—a twenty-five-year-old alcoholic just trying to get home.

My first instinct was to run. It was primal and automatic. I set the bottle down on the ground and slipped out of the bus shelter. The wind was picking up, and the smells of garbage and the soup-kitchen tent set up in the Civic Center were mixing together, making me sick. The fact that I had been living on a steady diet of sugary malt liquor and cheap pizza for a couple of years at that point had hardened my stomach, but these cops had made it drop and weaken.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to get a ticket. I was about to start a new job that could possibly get me out of the depths of the Tenderloin and maybe even get me cleaned up a little bit. There was always room for a couple of miracles. I would need one on this particular night, because there was a slight chance that there was a warrant for my arrest. I had gotten a ticket for running from the subway police about six months prior. I never took care of it, and I knew it had become a much bigger problem. If I got arrested now, that would most certainly show up on the pending background check for this new job, and would dash any hope of getting myself out of the cycle of failure I had been in for the last couple of years.

As I walked around the corner of Sixth Street, though, the two cops also turned it. They flipped on the reds and blues, and shouted over the loudspeaker, “Hey! You! Stop!” I stopped, and everyone around me stopped as well, because they also had something to hide. When the cops got out of their car and approached me, I felt a collective sigh of relief as everyone else realized that I was the one who had drawn their ire, and they could all go back to their shady business.

I put my hands up and backed up against the piss-soaked wall of a liquor store. People across the street stood around idly and stared as the lights continued spinning on top of the double-parked cop car and flashed in my eyes like in an old noir movie. The crack dealers in the doughnut shop got up out of their plastic chairs and pressed their faces against the glass, gazing in wonder at the bullet they had dodged, and the parade of sex-workers kept going down Sixth Street, happy to move freely while the cops were busy dealing with me.

“Excuse me, but is that your bottle back there?” one of the cops asked.

I looked back and squinted my eyes, like I was trying to think; like I had no idea what he could possibly be talking about.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Well, we’re sure,” the other cop said. “Open your bag.”

“Come on, guys, there’s a lot going on right now. Look, that guy over there is beating up that other guy with his crutch.”

We all looked across the street, and it was true. A man was hopping up and down on one leg, beating another man mercilessly with a duct-taped crutch. Blood spilled out of the downed man’s face and onto the brick-inlaid ground.

“We’re not worried about them. Give me your I.D.”

One of the cops went through my bag and pulled out the second bottle of St. Ides, opening it to dump it in the gutter while the other one took my I.D. and began writing out a ticket. I watched carefully, making sure that he didn’t go back in the car to his computer to look me up and find whatever bad news was waiting there. He just wrote the ticket out on the hood of the cop car as the crack dealers in the doughnut shop went back to sitting quietly in the plastic booths, staring straight ahead into nothing. When the cop handed me the ticket, he smiled. I snatched it out of his hand as I watched my bus sputter up to the bus stop and then, seeing that no one was there, drive off. I would have to wait another two hours for the next one.

“Oh, was that your bus?” the cop said. “I guess you’re gonna be here for a while.”

I nodded at him, and knew that that was probably true, and not only in the short term.

Even though he wasn’t arresting me, it was hard not to feel like a complete failure. The truth was that this new job that I had been leaning on so heavily, been so dependent on as a beacon of light to guide me out of this dump of a neighborhood and my dump of a life, was not going to change who I fundamentally was. There was still a really good chance that I would mess it up. The cops drove off, and after two more hours of sober waiting, when I finally got on the bus, that was all I could think about. It was all I could think about on the walk to my parents’ place once I got there, and it was all I could think about on the bus ride home two days later.

After a few weeks, I had gone back to my usual routine of sitting in the Trophy Room in the Tenderloin and waiting for something good to happen when I got a call from my mother.

“Hey,” she said, “I found something that I think you left here.”

“My dignity? My will to live?” I said, sipping my beer in the dusty light of the bar.

“No, it’s just a piece of paper. Did you get a ticket for an open container?”

“Oh. Yeah,” I said.

“Well, it says you have a court date tomorrow. I want to make sure you go, so I’ll come pick you up.”

“Fine. Sounds good,” I said. “It’s a date.”

The next day she picked me up to go to court, which is a dream come true for any mother, and I wore my least ripped button-up shirt and a my least ripped thrift store pants. They were both still ripped, but maybe the court would give me some leniency for trying.

The courthouse in San Francisco is located across from the impound lot, where I had been many times back when I first moved to the city and had a car. The car got towed so many times that eventually I just told them to keep it and they auctioned it off to some other unfortunate soul who would have to figure out a way to move it every two hours in the devastating San Francisco traffic.

We waited in line at the courthouse to get up to a little window where an exhausted-looking woman sat and processed other open container tickets and marijuana offenses. I was a little taken aback that the place didn’t look like an actual court. It was more like the DMV. I had expected there to be a judge in robes, perhaps even wearing a powdered barrister’s wig, but it was just this one beleaguered woman behind bullet-proof glass, processing tickets quickly and unemotionally. I stood in line with my mother and told her that she didn’t have to wait with me.

“No,” she said, “like I said, I want to make sure that you actually see this through to the end. It’s important. You’ve got this new job coming up. It could be good for you, and not doing this could ruin it. It’s not just for you. It’s for me.”

I knew immediately what she meant. She didn’t just want to make sure I didn’t go to jail, she wanted to make sure she didn’t have to visit me there.

When we finally got up to the window, the woman took my ticket and typed the information into the computer. Then she turned to me and looked me up and down, eyeing my barely ripped-up clothing.

“You’re dismissed,” she said, “there’s no paperwork here for you.”

“What’s that?” my mother asked.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yep. Officer Morris never filed the paperwork. You’re free to go.”

We left the window and I looked at my mother, raising my eyebrows. It was a good thing I had dressed up.

Three months later, I was sitting at the familiar bus stop in the Tenderloin. It was bitter cold now, and the January wind was whipping in off of the bay, penetrating into my bones. The bus was late. I had been at my new job for a little while, and had managed to save up some money and move out of the Tenderloin into a small studio apartment way out in the Sunset District near the beach. Life was looking up, like there was a way out. I looked around at the crack dealers in the doughnut shop and a man walking on one crutch down Sixth Street, and I saw that they were still there in their infinite loop, except they didn’t have someone to make sure that they went to their court dates, and they weren’t so lucky as to have the fat cops who wrote their tickets forget to file them, or just not care enough to fill out the paperwork. Theirs was an endless loop of lost hope.

I pulled the collar of my jacket up against the wind and the familiar smells of garbage floated down through the alleys and crept up out of the steel grates embedded in the ground. Not much had changed since I left.

The Trophy Room still sat across the street. Figuring the bus would just continue being late, I went in and sat at my favorite bar stool, where I could watch for it out the window. I sipped my beer and looked at the cop cars driving past in slow motion. The Trophy Room was dark and quiet like always, and for the first time in a long time I felt like there was going to be a future and that it would be waiting there for me when I got there.

I could see my bus way up Market Street lumbering slowly and making its stops along the way, so I paid my tab and went back out to the familiar shelter to wait for it to waddle its way to me. As I sat there, I pulled out my black flask of Old Granddad whiskey. I had wizened up a little bit, but not all the way, and had invested in a flask that could be a little bit more discreet to hold the whiskey that was just a little bit more expensive than St. Ides malt liquor.

As I took quick pulls from it, I turned and saw the dreaded black and white of a cop car stop in front of me. My heart jumped as I made eye contact again with another set of fat cops sitting in the front seat and scanning the street. I put my hand down and shut my eyes tight, leaning on the little kid principle that if I couldn’t see them, perhaps they wouldn’t be able to see me, and when I opened them again, they were gone; moving on to perhaps more pressing matters and to someone else whose luck had run out. When my bus pulled up, I paid the fare and went to sit in the back, tumbling through the night and leaving the Tenderloin behind me.

Michael J. O’Connor
is a writer and musician from California. He has worked as prose editor on the literary magazine Zaum, and is a contributing writer for the satirical music blog The Hard Times, as well as other publications.