Mean street, USA
This month, I was too broke to travel anywhere; I’d just returned from Canada and took a trip to New Mexico before that. A couple friends had talked me into wandering up to the Phoenix Art Museum for a new show on Chicano art. It’s not often that the stodgy, older art establishment gives Chicano artists the time of day, so I decided it might be a surreal enough “trip” to count as traveling to another place.
I was throwing on a less-dirty pair of socks when my friend (we’ll call her Araceli) text messaged me. She was running up to the neighborhood store for cigarettes and to get some cash. Good, that meant one less stop, other than for gas. Her text was my sign to head over. She’d promised to pay for gas to the museum, since I was flat-busted broke and coasting on fumes until payday.
I hopped in my truck after a few minutes and headed down the street, fielding another text message from her sister, Christine, who was also joining us. As I passed the neighborhood store, I spotted Araceli walking back home. I pulled over so she could hop in.
But she didn’t seem to notice me as I looked through the tinted windows and dark night. “Yeah, I’ll open the door and get her attention.” Rolling down the window might’ve made more sense, but my window controls are busted.
“Hey! Get in?”
She finally noticed me and jogged across the street, just as another car was passing and a truck had pulled up to the intersection, its driver giving me the evil eye for stopping.
Running around behind, she came up, opened the door and hopped in. Looking over, I saw just what I’d done.
“You’re not at all who I thought you were.”
“I thought you were somebody else.”
“Whatever. Just drive.”
“What? No. I’m just going two blocks away.”
“It’s ok. I’m not a cop.”
Dear lord! I took a good look at her. I could see her twitching face, scarred by drugs, like a jigsaw puzzle, and somebody had forced all the pieces together – whether they matched or not. Oh no! I’d picked up a crackhead looking for johns! And she wasn’t getting out of the truck.
She interrupted my stare.
At this point I realized the truck driver on the side street was also getting irate. He apparently didn’t understand the concept of driving around obstacles. So I revved up past the intersection, and he followed my bumper, trying to make some angry motorist’s point, not knowing that some things are more important – such as, say, the prostitute on my front seat, looking to score that great white boulder!
She decided to strike a business deal, asking, “So what do you want?”
“Uh, Nothing. Where can I drop you off? I can’t give you a ride.”
“Then why did you pick me up?”
“I didn’t. I thought you were somebody else.”
“Give me 10 bucks!”
What? I told her no, and that’s when things really went to hell. She started barking at me that I’d picked her up and owed her for the trouble – and she had those crazy, rabid-dog eyes.
Ah hell, what had I done? I swerved over to the curb across from where Araceli lived, intending to get her out of my truck. Suddenly, the lady freaked. Before I’d parked, she had whipped the keys out of my ignition. She was opening the door as I wrestled the un-powered steering wheel to a stop. The truck lurched up onto a sidewalk as I lunged across the cab to snatch at the keys before they were lost for good.
We scuffled over them, wrestling like a bad relationship gone worse on the side of the road. All the while she yelled how I was the one who picked her up and that she wanted her 10 bucks.
Then I pulled back away from the lady. I had this vision of just how bad this would look if it escalated. I couldn’t hit her; the cops would just think I was an angry customer, or a violent pimp. Or, with my luck she might not feel a thing, then pull out a shiv and go haywire on me. That doesn’t look good at all on an obituary notice.
“Here lies Mortimer,
shanked by a trollop;
thought he could hit her
now pushin’ daisies up.”
To let her know I wasn’t just some dude sitting in a strange neighborhood, I called out for Araceli to come out of her house.
The broke-down old cokehead started getting more defiant.
“Who you callin? Ain’t nobody!”
“I’m calling my friend. Gimme my *#(^%! keys!”
She slipped out of the truck, holding my keys ransom.
“Give me 10 bucks.”
Again with the 10 bucks! “I…Don’t…HAVE…anything! There’s not even gas in my truck!”
That made her pause. Her dead socket eyes studied me as I asked her to let me prove it. Finally, she got close enough for me to snatch my keys out of her hand and put them in the ignition. I pointed to all the lights glowing: “See!? Nothing! You’ve got the poorest guy in town. I’m here because my friend has to pay for gas!” That’s when she might’ve decided I wasn’t a very good customer.
In the pause, I called out again, “Araceli!” Still, nobody came out of the house.
Finally, as quick as she turned up, the buzzard-woman disappeared. She’d probably given up, but in my mind she was heading for reinforcements. She now knew where my friend lived – and that wasn’t good. I decided we had to skip out of the area before she brought back some pimp with the shakes and a slingshot.
I turned on the truck again, veered up into the driveway and got out to pound on the front door. Finally Christine came to the door, looking at me as if I’d left my sanity out in the hills. Maybe I had?
“Come on. We gotta go! Come ON! Out front.”
I rattled off an incoherent recounting of what had just happened. Araceli sauntered in from the back with an unlit cigarette in hand like it was the laziest day in a month of Sundays. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is when people don’t respond to your call to action, let alone your call for help? No matter what the circumstances, it’s no fun.
After a minute of blabbering, all I got was, “Ohh.. OK.. I thought I saw you parked there when I drove past. Didn’t make sense. Relax… have a beer. Smoke a cigarette.”
Yes. Of course. That was her car that had passed me. She drove to the store. It’s summer in Phoenix. Why would she walk? Silly, silly me.
We stood outside for a minute as I chased away an adrenaline rush with a bottle of Negra Modelo. I started to notice there was no cavalry of rabid pimps and thieves, firing muskets.
I recovered, and we drove downtown to the art museum.
Still, I was ribbed about my moment of stupidity as we walked from canvas to canvas.
“Don’t talk to strangers, Mortimer.”
“I can’t believe you think I look like a [prostitute].”
I tried defending myself: “You’ve been crazed before, too. I seen it!”
She just rolled her eyes and made that thoroughly irritating look that said, “Yeah, uh-huh. Nice try. You’re just trying to hide that you thoroughly lost your manhood for a minute back there.”
Instead, her words were – in a fake-sweet voice, “Why would I talk about that? When your embarrassment is so recent?” I wanted to tell her off, but even I couldn’t stop laughing at myself.
The art pieces were fine. Raw, edgy, in-your-face… just like the rest of my evening had been. But it was all a blur, really. I just wandered around the gallery, thinking, “Next time somebody asks if I’ve ever picked up a prostitute, I have to respond with: You mean, on purpose?”