Photo by Sean B.
Tay Tay was my first friend in Bed Stuy. Yes, she stole my money, and yes, she nearly got me kicked out of my apartment, and yes, our relationship further alienated me from my neighbors, but she stuck around. Tay Tay, she was like glue.
Let me explain.
Crackheads are like seagulls: you feed one, and it comes back every day for the next year, staring at you with its flat, needful eyes, shifting from foot to foot, emitting an occasional squawk of impatience. It’s a particular kind of love, a pick-your-bones-before-your-body-cools kind of love. On Cape Cod, where I come from, only the tourists feed the gulls.
Now, I get it, I see the pieces sliding into place in your minds: white college girl from bourgie East Coast seaside town, moves to New York City, becomes “college poor” and ends up living in real poor neighborhood, naively takes condescending pity on desperate crack ho, and then can’t shake her. Cry you a fucking river, right?
Let me explain.
Tay Tay and I had more in common than you think, than I thought. And I’m not talking about our Puerto Rican fathers.
How about some more context? This was the year 2000, pre-9/11, pre-George Dubya, post-millenium. We had partied like it was 1999, and we were still partying, because the world had not ended, because we didn’t need a reason. It was the year I ripped my first CD, my junior year of college. It was the summer that Aaliyah’s last hit: “Try Again” was all over the radio. I loved that song, despite the fact that I had invested most of my music-loving years to semi-obscure indie-rock and the kind of underground rap music that only arty white college kids and the black intellectuals who hate them loved (remember Ded Prez? Cannibal Ox?). I was a New School student, after all.
It was not the first year that I smoked crack, but, it was the first time I could buy it at the corner store. Though, I didn’t know that when I first moved in.
I should never have given Tay Tay my money. It was only that one time. See, when we first moved in, our apartment building’s door was busted, which meant that after dark, the vestibule that housed our mailboxes was consistently fishbowled with crack smoke. Tay Tay would wait in the vestibule for a tenant to open the second door, leading into the building, wedge her flip-flopped foot in as it closed, and then lead her tricks up to the roof. She used protection, I’m happy to report, the evidence was all over our roof, as if a horde of snakes had slithered up there, and molted, en masse.
I wasn’t even looking for crack, that day. My heroin habit was much more pressing. But crack was the drug industry in Bed Stuy. She ripped me off, of course. I knew enough then that I shouldn’t let her out of my sight, but I wasn’t brave enough yet to insist that she take me with her to cop.
The next time I saw her, weaving down Gates Avenue, hair half braided, flip-flops flapping, one arm clutching a child-size pink raincoat closed over her skinny chest, the other raised high over her head, waving as she called out “Haaay-aaay!! Melinda!” I almost ducked behind a tree. I fiercely protected my double life, and only recently had my habits assumed the strain of desperation that threatened the compartmentalization of my ambitious college student identity and my street-savvy derelict. My literary heroes—those precious gold standards of junkiedom whom I referred to whenever the need to rationalize the obvious dangers of drug-use popped up—(William Burroughs lived into a ripe old age, nevermind that he shot his wife). Well, they had never written about what to do when your cover was blown in broad daylight by a crackhead in a pink raincoat. I gave her a dollar and scurried into my apartment as quickly as I could manage. Her hungry face disappeared behind the apartment door, but the gnawing fear in my chest hung around.
I never copped from her again, sticking instead with the dealers I quickly located around the block, who didn’t use their own product, and weren’t any eager to be seen in my company than I was in theirs. But Tay Tay persisted. “Girlfriend,” I’d hear her hollar from half a block away, on my way home from the Bedford Y—where I liked to lift weights in slow motion when I was high on dope.
Let me explain. My logic functioned on junkie arithmetic, which reasoned two bags of dope + one hour of exercise had an absolute value of zero; the two values neutralized one another. Throw in a shot of wheatgrass, and I was having a good day.
I tried to neutralize Tay Tay, by telling her I was on the wagon now. “White girl,” she’d say, sucking her teeth, “you. Are. Not.” She’d lean back to appraise me, squinting one eye theatrically.
“You on that good shit. Tay Tay can tell.” It took one to know one. Her brain might have been pudding from years on the pipe and the street, but a fiend always knows a fiend.
One time, I was standing on my stoop with my roommate, Emily, and our super, Walter, a giant, kind West Indian man who never fixed anything, but would bring us salves to cure athlete’s foot, and thick stalks of raw sugar cane. As we chit-chatted, I spotted Tay Tay coming down the block, and hurried to finish up our conversation. I relaxed as she turned down Franklin Ave, moving away from us.
“There goes a junky scramble,” I blurted out. I have often had the tourettish impulse to point out the objects of my anxiety, as if drawing attention to them will divert it from me.
“A junky scramble?” asked my roommate. “Like, a tofu scramble?”
I laughed. “No, like, a junky on the move.” I descended the stoop steps, and scrambled down the walkway. Walter hooted. It was an imitation of that motion recognizable to most people who’ve ever lived in a major city (well, the kind of people who live in not-nicest neighborhoods, or have a reason to notice this kind of thing): legs stiff but hustling, a hint of a limp, arms awkward but swinging, body’s frame rocking side to side. The junky scramble. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing; everybody knows where you’re going when you walk like that.
Eventually, my roommates, who drank and smoked like normal college students, started to feel uncomfortable, about my drug use, and my new BFF. No one said anything—I never gave them an opportunity, and I never used in front of them, but I recognized that thickness in the air of our mouse-infested home, the gravity of silence clotted with words unspoken.
Then one night, I woke to one of my roommates prodding, her furrowed face leaning over me.
“What?” I asked her, blearily rubbing my eyes.
We stared at each other in silence for a moment, and just as I raised my arm in incredulity, I heard it.
BANG BANG BANG.
I sat up in bed, rubbing my eyes again.
BANG BANG BANG.
“What the fuck?” I said.
My roommate gave me an exasperated glare, and then I heard her.
“Melisssssssaaaa! Yo!! Me-la-nie!”
I froze, frantically hoping that I would wake up a second time, to find that this had been just another anxiety dream.
BANG BANG BANG.
“The neighbors!” hissed my roommate, and I sprung out of bed, hurrying through the kitchen and down the long hallway that led to the apartment door, my feet sticking to the never-mopped floor.
I secured the chain-lock, and cracked open the door, just as she began to call my name again.
“Ssshhh!” I hushed through the crack.
At first I didn’t see her. Then I lowered my gaze. Tay Tay sat on the landing outside our apartment, smiling up at me with her three teeth.
“Oh, hey girl! It’s just me.”
She was obviously high—but not as agitated as her banging had suggested. I closed the door, and unlatched the lock, opening it again, but just enough to stick my head out.
“Tay Tay, what are you doing?” I asked. But it was obvious. She had an oversized sweatshirt spread out beneath her for a makeshift blanket, and neatly arranged across it were a couple of sooty crack pipes, a small pile of crumpled heroin bags, a battered box of Newports, and an empty 24 oz coca cola bottle. A crackhead picnic.
Perhaps this was all arranged just so for her convenience, but I later suspected, as I still do, that it was more for my benefit—either to entice me, or to horrify me, I’m still not sure. Drug addicts’ powers of manipulation can never be overestimated.
“Tay Tay,” I said slowly. “You can’t be here right now. It’s four o’clock in the morning.”
“Oh,” she said, tilting her head back. “You were sleepin’?”
“Yes,” I said. “And so were my roommates, and so were my neighbors.” I examined her to gauge comprehension. Or more accurately, to gauge cooperation. I silently prayed that she would go peacefully. I’d started talking to god more in those days than I ever had, being that I spent so much time in foxholes. “You have to leave, Tay Tay,” I said, not unkindly, but with what I hoped conveyed non-negotiability, and more confidence than I felt.
For a few moments, we didn’t say anything. She stared at me, then down at her picnic. I became aware of my goose-pimpled legs, my roommates breathing behind me, and the smoldering cigarette she had wedged in the cleft between her index and middle finger.
Finally, she gave a shrug.
“All right then. I’ll be on my way.”
I nearly collapsed with relief.
“But! You can at least do me this one favor.”
I didn’t know how I had ended up in her deficit, but I was willing to concede, if it meant that she’d pack up shop before my neighbors started poking their heads out from behind their peepholes. Bed Stuy’s sidewalks might have been scattered with crackheads, but its homes were mostly full of hardworking people, who just wanted a good night’s sleep.
She cocked her head at me. “You gotta hair pic?”
“What? No. Wait, what?”
Tay Tay rolled her eyes. “A comb, you got a hair comb?”
“Ah, yeah, I guess. I mean, I think so.” I didn’t actually brush my hair often, but held up a finger to indicate that I would soon return. I pushed my way past my roommates, bare feet suctioning again to the sticky floors as I padded into the bathroom and slid open the medicine cabinet. On the top shelf, in a puddle of nail polish remover was a cheap black comb. I wiped it on the corner of a mildewy towel and scuttled back to the door, cracking it open once again.
“Here you go,” I sung, projecting an air of closure, as if it were now obvious to all that our business was finished.
“Mmm,” she grunted, and examined the comb. She dropped it onto the sweatshirt with her other goodies, and stared at it some more. A fresh spurt of anxiety chilled my chest. Tay Tay reached for the empty coke bottle and held it up to me.
“You got something to drink in there?”
I paused, “Yeah, yeah I can get something to drink.”
“What I’d really like is a shower. My head is itchiiin.’”
“I know! I’m only asking for a little something to drink. My mouth is dry.”
She coughed dryly to illustrate.
I rolled my eyes, but took the bottle. Closing the door softly again, I hurried back to the bathroom and filled her bottle with water, careful not to touch its mouth with my bare fingers.
When I handed it back to her, heavy and cool, and beaded with droplets, she stared at it, much as she’d stared at the comb. As if she had been expecting something better.
“You don’t have no coca-cola?”
“No, Tay Tay, I don’t drink Coca-Cola.” This was true.
She looked at me like I was crazy. I stared right back at her, and there followed another long stretch of silence, in whose liquid thickness I knew more than one potential floated. I could practically hear her brain gnawing on the options, and their possible outcomes.
Finally, she shrugged, and began packing up her picnic. This took longer than I need detail, but suffice to say, it was with no urgency that she closely inspected the insides of each empty baggie for any valuable residue before folding their tiny rectangles into tinier rectangles and laboriously wrapping them in the foil from her cigarette box. With a disgruntled air, she finally hoisted herself up, and into her blackened flip flops, and slow motion scrambled down the stairs.
And that, was pretty much the last interaction I had with her. Sure I saw her around the neighborhood, hustling across Franklin Ave like her life depended on it, which it did. Or passed out on the sofa underneath the C train overpass, which we referred to as “the living room.” Every couple weeks the city would drag away the loveseat, hobbled folding chairs, and milkcrates that had been collected there, and within another couple days, replacements would appear, with bodies sprawled across, or crouched over them.
I wish I could say that getting such a close-up view at what drugs did to human beings was what got me sober. I wish I could say that, at 20 years old, I realized that my middle-classness, my higher education, my wheatgrass shots, or theories of invincibility wouldn’t protect me from becoming someone else. None of that did. It was only the private revelation of my own suffering, and I had a few more years before that would get worse enough.
Once, on my walk to the subway, outside a bodega, I saw a man punch a woman in face three times. I had seen fights, but no one had ever punched me in the face. I didn’t hesitate before throwing myself between them like some kind of tiny white feminist superhero. Shooting rays of hubris from my knuckles. These two crackheads both looked at me like I was fucking crazy.
I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing today. But the shame I feel thinking about it has more to do with my silent presumption than my actions. That I knew anything about their lives, or their states of victimhood, or what of. I might have studied racial politics in my New School classrooms, waxed on about hegemonic class dynamics, gentrification, and paradigms of subjugation, but I didn’t have a fucking clue. At least not how to place myself in the context of any of that. I still thought that knowledge was an action. That self-knowledge induced change.
Though I stopped hearing Tay Tay call my name down the street, I did receive a call from my landlord. He was a mild man, who never minded if our rent was a few days late, and so I knew something was up.
The three of us showed up on the appointed afternoon, and were seated in his tiny Park Slope office.
The performance that followed I am loathe to describe to anyone, though I was proud of it at the time. As my roomates looked on, I explained to this man that the neighborhood was just full of these sad cases, and I had only been trying to help. I had tried giving her food, and then just enough money for a metrocard, or the 24hour buffet down on Fulton. I wept real tears, which is somewhat of a miracle, considering how emotionally numb I was—they must have been on reserve for whenever I got quiet enough to feel how completely terrified and miserable I was.
As I remember it, my roommates didn’t say much, and my landlord gently reminded me not to feed the crackheads. For years, I thought back on it, despite with growing chagrin, as my most immaculate performance. And I gave many.
After I got sober, left Bed Stuy, and was living the clean cut life of a professional dominatrix, my old roommate Emily and I had lunch in Williamsburg. The subject of Tay tay came up. I cringed.
“Do you remember that fucked up performance I gave david, after she showed up at four in the morning that time? I can’t believe I pulled that bullshit off.”
Emily stared at me in disbelief.
“What?” I said.
“Do you remember that day?” she asked.
“Of course I do!”
“You were so high,” she said, “you practically fell out of your chair.”
“What?” I said.
She just nodded, eyes widened.
I reeled. “But why would he just act like he believed me. Why didn’t anyone say anything?”
She stared at me for another moment. “What was the point?”
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, WHIP SMART. Her writing has been published in The Southeast Review, Redivider, Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, and Bitch Magazine, among many others, and she has been profiled in venues ranging from the cover of the NY Post to NPR’s Fresh Air. She teaches at Purchase College, Sarah Lawrence, The New School, and NYU, and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. A resident of Brooklyn, she is currently at work on a novel.