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Here’s a Malcolm and Kevin story: The year is 1982. Kevin and I drive into St. Louis from Columbia, Missouri. He wants to show me where he grew up and shot dope. We manoeuvre through road construction on I-70 east, exit onto one highway and then another until we pull off onto a residential street lined on either side by small brick one-story homes with wraparound porches and spotless yards. I was expecting decay and boarded-up buildings. This feels almost like a picture on a postcard. After a moment, however, I notice the security bars over windows and the heavy iron gates protecting doors. We pass a house where a man in dark sunglasses watches us from a porch. Kevin tells me to park.
He goes by Snake, Kevin says. He’s a dealer.
What’s he like?
Why do you think we call him Snake?
Kevin slips on a pair of his own equally dark sunglasses and we get out of the car. I walk behind him, moving stiffly up the steps of Snake’s porch imitating Kevin’s commanding stride. Kevin is six-feet-six, and his long shadow spreads over me. Snake gives no indication of how he feels about a black man and a white man approaching him. At the top of the porch, Kevin pauses, head tilted slightly to one side. His image looms large in Snake’s sunglasses.
Big Kev, Snake says, after a long moment. He smiles, lips pursed. Kevin gives a throaty chuckle without opening his mouth. They slapped each other’s palms. I see the grip of a pistol sticking out of Snake’s left sock.
When I saw this dude, Snake says with a nod toward me, I thought you was Bill Cosby and that white dude from I Spy.
Kevin gives another deep chuckle. I stand stone-faced, my idea of a hard-ass. Snake tells us to pull up some chairs and we sit on either side of him. Kevin passes him a joint. He examines it with the eye of a jeweller, prying it open, holding it close to his nose, inhaling it.
Pretty green, he says.
He strikes a match, holds the joint to his mouth and inhales, and passes it to Kevin. Kevin takes a hit, hands it back to Snake who indulges once again before he offers it to me.
Very good, Snake says. So green, but it’s good.
Goes to show you can’t judge something by its colour, I say.
Snake turns slowly and faces me. My heart ticks up a notch. I meant nothing by it, no underlying message about me being white. I’m stoned and was just talking about the weed. Snake, however, perceives wisdom and insight. Or maybe he just thinks I have balls.
You might make it here, Malcolm, he says. You just might.
Kevin doesn’t move, but I notice a smile that ever so slightly cracks his otherwise blank face. I feel like I’ve moved up in his estimation, and I’m as pleased as a kid getting the approval of an older brother. I want to be like him, the way he can fill a room with his presence, his voice.
When we finish the joint, Kevin stands.
Leaving? Snake says.
Yeah, man, Kevin replies.
Come back this evening.
Snake gets up, and they shake hands. I follow Kevin to the car.
Are we really hooking up with him later?
Kevin takes off his sunglasses and considers me. Then he laughs.
Snake said you might make it, he says. He didn’t say you would.
We drive back to Columbia.
I met Kevin in Columbia where I was enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of Missouri. A student in one of my classes told me a local shelter called Bridge Home needed volunteers. I liked her, thought of asking her out, so I signed up.
BH, as everyone called Bridge Home, operated out of a dilapidated one-story white house near downtown that stank of mildew and mouldy carpet. My responsibilities included signing in people who needed a place to stay at night and referring them to whatever nonprofit might be able to help them with jobs and housing. Most of the clients were encouraged to apply at Carlton House, an agency that served developmentally disabled children. It offered minimum wage and always needed staff. Columbia was a small town. There were few other options for work.
Kevin was a client when I started volunteering. I have a dim memory of working the midnight shift and seeing him wrapped in a blanket peering at me from the floor in what had once been a living room. I had not been at BH for more than a week when he got a job at Carlton House and rented a room near the university. Another former BH client, Barry, lived in the same building, and I would check on him. Barry wasn’t interested in anything other than picking up his disability check. He scrounged dumpsters for food. McDonald’s, he said, threw food away every three hours, and if the employees were cool, they’d put burgers in to-go containers and set them outside for homeless people.
Barry grew up in the Ozarks and spoke with a thick southern drawl. Oh, wow, was his response to anything that shocked him, the words shaking like dice as he spoke. He had grown up as a foster child and lived in more homes than he could count. He had also done time “behind the walls,” as he put it, in Jefferson City, Missouri, for assault and robbery a year before I met him. He did not fit any conception I had of a felon until one night when I took him out for pizza. As we walked down Broadway, Barry noticed a young man, probably a university student, approaching us. Let’s take this dude, Barry said. His entire demeanour changed from country bumpkin to thug. His eyes narrowed, he thrust his chest out and balled his hands into fists. I had no idea what had overcome him. I got between him and the student, blocking a right hook Barry levelled at his head. Barry! I shouted, Barry! The student hurried away, and Barry glared after him. Slowly, his body relaxed. You all right, man? I asked. He looked at me confused like someone shaken awake and didn’t answer. We skipped the pizza and walked back to BH.
After Barry got his room, I would check on him. On my way out one afternoon, I knocked on Kevin’s door to see how he was. We talked, about what I no longer remember, but I enjoyed his company. The next day, I brought some beers and we hung out. Soon we developed a nightly habit splitting a six-pack.
You’re bad for me, he’d say, cracking open a beer.
Barry liked to spend time with Kevin, too, and was often in his room when I dropped by. He spoke highly of black inmates he knew in prison but held white felons in contempt. He tolerated me, I presume, because I volunteered at BH and Kevin and I were friends. Kevin assumed he had been coerced into becoming a black inmate’s boyfriend and coped with that by identifying with black people.
I don’t know about that, I said.
What else, Kevin insisted, could explain Barry’s refusal to spend time with anyone who wasn’t black?
Maybe he was protected by some black people in prison, I said.
Protection comes with a price, Kevin said.
You’d think he’d hate black people then.
Kevin shrugged. We agreed that we’d never understand Barry.
You’re blacker than I am, Kevin told him. And I’m black.
Kevin was thirty-two, I was twenty-five. He spoke in a deep, smooth, precise voice, a kind of Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name way of speaking, his lips barely moving, a cavernous tone expressing confidence without emotion. He told me he had rehearsed and developed his voice when he first got into what he called the drug game. He would sit in his room and talk to himself, listening to how he sounded like an actor rehearsing his lines. He peppered his speech with slang. He’d say, my partner instead of my friend. I’m hip instead of I agree. I grew up on the bricks meaning I grew up on the street. Chill for relax. Beats a blank for better than nothing. My front for my image. Fine for beautiful, hawk for a hard wind, dime for ten dollars. Once he asked me for a dime, and I gave him ten cents. That fucked me up, he told me later, laughing. Fucked me up, another expression. Also, You dig? instead of Do you understand? I got burned means I got screwed, or, if he was referring to a woman, it meant he had contracted VD. I walked with him to a clinic that tested for sexually transmitted diseases one night a few days after he slept with a woman who volunteered at BH. She had been homeless and traded sex for shelter until she found a job at Carlton House and a room. The bitch burned me, Kevin cursed. I had no idea what he meant, but in the clinic’s crowded waiting room where young men and women stared at the floor beneath posters promoting safe sex I figured it out. Nobody’s smiling, I said, you dig? Kevin shook his head and busted up.
He was the only guy I knew who pressed his blue jeans, the creases shark fin-sharp, bursts of steam hissing up toward his face. He looked serious, deliberate, and he ironed his shirts, too, and hung his clothes on hangers from a nail on his closet door, ready for the next morning. He styled his hair in a Jheri curl. Before he went out he slipped on a black jacket and sunglasses. He didn’t walk, he strutted, his hands always curled into fists.
I’m a man of the streets, you dig, Kevin would tell me as we sipped beers in his room. I told him I grew up in Chicago, implying I was a city kid and a man of the streets in my own way. The truth: I was raised in a posh suburb thirty miles north of the city in a house with nearly an acre of land. My parents instilled in my brothers and me the belief that all of Chicago was one big, bad neighbourhood. We knew that the roads weren’t bad or the houses; the people made the neighbourhoods bad. They committed crimes and didn’t work. They lived on welfare, and they were black. My parents warned us not to go into the city alone. Housekeepers and landscapers were the only people of colour I saw.
I’m a Garcia, second generation, but I’m as white as a Smith or a Jones, and Kevin knew it although he’d tell people I was Latino, leaving out the fact I didn’t speak Spanish. I dressed raggedy as hell – torn jeans and faded T-shirts, a ZZ Top beard, and hair down my back. Some people mistook me for being homeless, but I had never known hard times. I suppose I thought of myself as a rebel.
When Kevin was a kid, he told me that seeing a white person in his neighbourhood would take everyone by surprise. He spoke about peeking around curtains as a little boy staring at the pale alien striding down the street.
It really trips me up you’re my partner, he would tell me.
He understood, or at least suspected, I came from a family of means because he would always hit me up for money. If I said I didn’t have it, he would chide, You have it, Mal. You know you’ve got money. He was right. My father footed the bill for my classes, including a monthly allowance. Maybe Kevin sensed that, too. Just thinking he might embarrassed me enough that I loaned him a few dollars, money I knew I’d never see again. He was playing me, another term I picked up from him. However, I put up with it because a part of me wanted to have what he seemingly had, confidence and style and a toughness that if it didn’t rub off on me I could at least bask in. He also possessed a surprising gentleness. Sometimes, when we stayed up late, I’d nod off in a chair and half asleep I’d feel him ease me to the floor and cover me with a blanket and tuck it around me.
Kevin called his mother Miss Shirley. She lived in Milwaukee. As a child, if he did something that annoyed her, she’d say, Boy. . . ! before lighting into him. She had a small, dark birthmark beneath her right eye as a result, Miss Shirley believed, of her mother stepping on a blackberry while she was pregnant. Kevin never met his father. He left my mother, he would say when I asked about him. I want nothing to do with him.
However, Kevin had abandoned his own family. He had four children with four women but had no contact with them or their mothers. The number of children mattered to him more than the children themselves. Four. He was proud of the number. He asked me if I ever slept with a black woman. No, I told him. You don’t like black women? he teased. You want me to set you up with one? I smiled, embarrassed because I had met very few black people, men or women. Kevin laughed at my discomfort. He said he’d like to connect (another slang term) with an Asian woman. He’d slept with an American Indian woman one time. She contacted him from Washington and told him she was pregnant, but she didn’t know if the baby was his. He wanted to believe it was. That would be five children, he boasted.
I didn’t say anything about his behaviour, although I thought it irresponsible. Instead I told him that in my opinion the reason young people in the inner city had kids was that it was the one thing they could do. It gave them pride. Their schools weren’t worth a damn, no employers knocked at their doors, their futures were confined to a geographic area that offered them little. But they could have kids. They could do that much. My amateur analysis based on a few college sociology courses did not impress Kevin. He didn’t comment on my theory and we said no more about it.
At BH some clients seeking alcohol treatment programs would ask Kevin if he was a recovering alcoholic. I’m a junky, you dig, he would say, as if it was a point of pride and far superior to mere alcoholism. Kevin and a friend, Tommy, got into drugs after a hospital hired them as janitors. Doctors and nurses popped pills and shot speed all the time, Kevin told me. They worked long hours and had access to every imaginable drug. Tommy got into the drug game first. Oh, Tommy, Kevin said, disapprovingly. I’ve never felt this good, Tommy told him. You’ll love it. Kevin held out until he didn’t. One night, Tommy told him to ball his left fist. He took his belt and wrapped it around Kevin’s bicep and pulled it tight until a vein popped up. Tommy licked one of his fingers and rubbed the vein. Then he injected Kevin with meth. Kevin felt a cool wave course through his body and through his jaw. He seemed to lift off the ground. Oh, Tommy, Kevin said, seduced.
Kevin had ropes, meaning good veins. He was embarrassed by his track marks, long lines down his arms like ink stains. No matter how hot the day was, he always wore long-sleeve shirts. My arm’s jumping, he would say, meaning he longed for a fix. He left St. Louis when he found himself huddled around trash fires on winter nights with other junkies waiting for a dealer when he’d been unable to steal dope from the hospital. One night shame overcame his cravings, and he began walking, head down, hands in his pockets, with no idea where he was going. A man picked him up near an I-70 west entrance ramp. They drove into Columbia, and the man dropped him off at a Greyhound bus station. Kevin sat on a bench and began shivering. A ticket salesman suggested he go to BH. It took him about five days before withdrawal stopped. It wasn’t like the movies, he said. He didn’t vomit, moan and groan, or lie in puddles of perspiration. His body ached, and he had a bitter taste in his mouth like he had been sucking pennies. He spent hours walking it off. A BH volunteer helped him put together a resume for Carlton House.
I left Columbia a year after I arrived to join a childhood friend, Gabrielle, in San Francisco. She needed a roommate, and I was finished at the university. I had notions of being a writer, but I had not settled on what I wanted to write about. Unfocused, I skipped classes, dropped out and worked at a deli. San Francisco sounded as good a place as any to reboot my life. Kevin remained his impassive self when I told him I was leaving. We stood beside my car. All right, man, he said in his deep voice. All right, I said. He turned around and walked away without looking back. I got in my car. We kept our front.
I stayed with Gabrielle in her North Beach apartment for about two months, until her boyfriend became jealous and she kicked me out. With nowhere to go, I stayed at Helping Neighbours, a homeless shelter near Sixth Street, San Francisco’s skid row. I wondered what it would be like to stay among people similar to those I’d helped at BH. I knew I could call my parents if I needed help. I had a superpower that none of those around me had; I could escape whenever I wanted.
Shelter clients were guaranteed a space if they helped put mats on the floor. I volunteered and impressed someone because after a few weeks a supervisor offered me a job. I signed people in and issued blankets. After a few weeks, the director of Helping Neighbour’s twenty-four-hour alcohol detox program, in the same building as the shelter, hired me. I served coffee while a counsellor named Bill Sutter trained me to do intakes. A recovering alcoholic, he had once belonged to the Hell’s Angels and had a tattoo of a black panther on his left arm. When he was bored he would pop out his two false front teeth and twirl them around on his tongue. Decades earlier, Bill had done a stint in prison for performing oral sex on a man in Texas. Prison did nothing to inhibit his appetites, and his sentence was extended for violating rules prohibiting sex with inmates. Finally the warden said, Bill, if you’d only behave I’d let you out.
You deliver me to a buffet and expect me not to eat? Bill replied.
I enjoyed the work. Getting someone who had pissed themselves and stank of their own filth into detox and then seeing them four weeks later after they had completed an alcohol program, almost unrecognizable from when I had last seen them, fulfilled me. Most of the clients started drinking again, but my discouragement never overwhelmed that moment of joy when I saw a man or woman I’d check into detox return and thank me for helping them.
Shortly after I moved to San Francisco, Kevin and a Carlton House coworker began shooting cocaine. Months later, exhausted from partying, Kevin walked out of Columbia as he had St. Louis. He caught a ride to Joplin, Missouri, and checked into a drug program. He wrote to me and said he was clean. I didn’t need the program, he added. I just needed to chill, you dig. He wanted to join me in San Francisco. I told him that as long as he wasn’t using I’d help him.
He arrived by Greyhound bus in May 1984. Despite days on the road he looked as if he had walked out of a display window – creased jeans, black jacket, sunglasses, Jheri curl. I picked him up at the Seventh Street station. What’s happening? he said in that voice of his and then asked if I’d loan him some money. I told him I had a few bucks but nothing substantial until payday.
You have it, Mal, he said. You know you’ve got money.
I gave him five bucks. He laughed his deepthroated chuckle and got in the car. We drove to my Haight-Ashbury apartment where he crashed for about a month until I helped him get a room in a residential hotel. Then I spoke to the shelter director, and he offered Kevin a job. Kevin swept and mopped the floor and unfolded and distributed mats and blankets as I had. You don’t look like you enjoy pushing a broom, a detox counsellor told him. I’m hip, Kevin said. Three weeks later, when a staff position opened in detox, Kevin applied and upon my recommendation was hired. I remained one step ahead of him. As he moved to detox, I was promoted to benefits advocate and helped homeless people with job searches and housing referrals. I attended meetings with Mayor Dianne Feinstein and other social services providers.
At night, Kevin and I would hang out in his room. Because Helping Neighbours received federal grants, he boasted how he worked for the federal government. I tried to correct him, but he wouldn’t have it. I’m an employee of the Feds, you dig, he said. The Feds. He called friends in St. Louis. I thought you’d died, one man told him. Kevin liked that. It was as if his life had become legend.
It bothered him, he told me one evening, that as a benefits advocate I had an office while he sat behind a reception desk and did intakes. Why? I wanted to know. Just does, he said, you dig? I didn’t, and we dropped the matter. I noticed a change, however. He got quieter. During his shifts, he would sit at a slight angle, one leg outstretched like someone posing. He did nothing but maintain his image, sitting in that manicured way and speaking in his deep voice only when spoken to and that was usually to say he was a junky, you dig, or that he had four, maybe five, children, affirming his sense of himself.
Other staff noticed how little he worked and complained to me. This friend of yours doesn’t do shit, they said. Embarrassed, I’d turn to Kevin. Speaking to him almost as if he was a client, I’d demand to know what was going on. You got to do the work, I scolded, you need to do basic stuff like ask them what they need. You can’t just sit. He gave me an impassive stare that hinted at fury. No one tells me what to do, you dig, he said. We stopped getting together after work.
A few months later, state and local funding cuts cost Kevin his job. More likely that was the excuse used by his supervisor to fire him. By then, I had accepted a job as the director of the Tenderloin Self-Help Centre, an agency that assisted the homeless in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. I had a few staff positions to fill and Kevin applied, but I did not consider his application.
In 1992, as I walked to a meeting, I saw Kevin for the last time. He stood across the street outside David’s, a sandwich shop. He watched me, and I couldn’t bring myself to ignore him. I jogged over, and we shook hands. He noticed I was wearing a tie. I was the administrator of a nonprofit and took myself very seriously. Damn, man, he said, fingering the tie. I yanked it away. We should get together, I said.
Sure, Kevin said in that voice of his.
We shook hands again, and I kept walking.
More than twenty years would pass before I’d hear from him. In the interim I had left social services and become a reporter. I had always thought I wanted to write fiction, but as the editor of the Tenderloin Self-Help Centre’s newsletter, I realized I had a knack for writing news. I worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Kansas City Star before I returned to Illinois in 2010 to care for my mother after my father had died. To maintain my journalism career, I began freelancing for The Chicago Tribune. Three years later, I received an email from Kevin.
Hey, what’s up? he wrote in May 2013. He said he found my email through a Google search. Since we’d last seen each other, he had worked at Salvation Army and Milestones, a program for ex-offenders. Without explaining why, he said he left San Francisco for Albuquerque and worked hi-tech (nano and microchip) technology jobs in Albuquerque’s Silicon Valley for the world’s third largest corporation! I had two brand-spanking-new off-the-showroom-floor cars! And, unbelievably, how Linda, one of my ex-lady’s, ended up moving to Albuquerque and staying with me! Hip replacement surgery made him eligible for disability, and he left New Mexico to live with his mother in Milwaukee. He said he wasn’t drinking or using.
Kevin’s tech jobs and new cars and Linda-drama didn’t impress me. I was fifty-six, responsible for my mother and looking for permanent work. I was no longer the young man mesmerized by his style. His boasting struck me as either juvenile or desperate. I couldn’t decide which. And much of what he wrote just didn’t make sense. Why hadn’t he stayed in New Mexico if it was so great? Why go on disability? He’d blown it at Helping Neighbours, and I suspected he had blown it elsewhere, too. He sent a follow-up email with his phone number. Have I offended you? he asked when I didn’t answer. Have I disrespected you in some way shape or form? I need you to call me. Now! Call me! I need this!
I had no idea why he wanted to talk to me so urgently, but his demanding plea made me uncomfortable. It was just odd, not at all like him, and it worried me, but I had my hands full working and caring for my mother. I explained my situation and told Kevin to relax, I’d get back to him when I could. He apologized. I’m sorry for being so selfish, he wrote. I forget that some people have jobs. I don’t. Gone was the talk about showroom cars and girlfriends. Gone was his front. It was as if all of a sudden, between his first email and this one, he had decided to strip away all pretence. As if he could no longer impress himself with his stories any more than he could me. He stood exposed and anguished and wanting something from me, I need this! but what? Money? Was he thinking of coming to Chicago and hooking up with me as he had when he moved to San Francisco? I could imagine his reaction to my mother’s house: two stories, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a dining room. Not grand by the standards of the neighbourhood, there were bigger houses, but definitely not ghetto. Milwaukee was only an hour’s drive away. I felt very defensive at the idea of him seeing where I grew up. You have it, Mal. You know you’ve got money. So much for my stories of living in Chicago. So much for my front. We’d both be exposed.
I never called him.
About three months later a process server contacted me. He accused me of not responding to a Milwaukee court summons. You’re Kevin Myles, aren’t you? I told him I wasn’t and gave him my name. He asked if I knew Kevin. I said I did but I’d not seen him in years.
I have no idea what sort of trouble Kevin might have been in or why he gave the court my phone number. I didn’t contact him to ask. He had fingered me with his problems. He had his reasons, among which, I think, was a pointed message. We had been partners. He was signalling we no longer were.
My mother died in 2015, and I returned to California. I now live in San Diego and continue to write. The house I rent is in a quiet neighbourhood near homes with rock gardens and Spanish-tile walks. I see a lot of kids. My neighbours always say hello, but we never linger long enough to introduce ourselves. Summer heat seems to come earlier and earlier each year. I worry about climate change and fires and other things. Every Friday, I volunteer for four hours with an agency that assists homeless people.
Recently, I flew to Missouri and drove through St. Louis on a reporting assignment, and I thought of the afternoon Kevin and I sat with Snake. Kevin had his front going on then. That was his world. Maybe he didn’t know any other way to be, or maybe he did but lacked the confidence to behave differently, an insecurity he never outgrew. I judge him based on the influences of my upbringing, standards well removed from his. Getting a good job, promotions, and an ever increasing salary I knew – no, assumed – would be a part of my life as much as it had been for my father and his father, and his father before him. I took a pause in this trajectory when I hung out with Kevin until it was time to fulfil the expectations of my family.
Sometimes I think of Kevin as the boy looking out the window at the rare sighting of a white person, someone from another universe. Never forget where you came from, he told me. Neither of us did.
J. Malcolm Garcia is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism.