The Polk Inn was a modern, clean, rectangular building right in the center of the grubby Tenderloin, where winos waved their lotto tickets in my face, tranny hookers strutted their goods like stoned peacocks and junkies sold stolen bicycles and outdated gizmos on the corners. Everyone was holding. A black man with a ghetto blaster perched on his shoulder bounced to the beat of an excellent Snoop Dog tune in front of our building. We had to duck around him to get in the front door.
Once inside, the office windows had a panoramic view of “fashion fence,” the chain link fence across the street that was decorated with dirty clothing for sale 24/7. At the Polk Inn, we, residential assistants referred to the scene as “street economy” and our clients at the Polk Inn participated in it; meaning, most of them turned tricks or hustled drugs. Polk Street was their terrain.
My job was to enforce the house rules. For instance, the clients weren’t allowed to bring their swag into the Polk Inn and we reserved the right to rifle through their backpacks and purses randomly, but I never did. After our clients were buzzed in, they usually held out their hands to show what they contained. Usually just their phones and a small brown paper sack from the liquor store on the corner with cigarettes, candy and beer. My manager said their world was small and that they stayed within a four-block radius of the Polk Inn. But I don’t know. Some clients wandered. The clients had chores like they had keep their rooms clean and show up for their meetings with their case managers and then they could get movie passes.
I got hired as an RA by total fluke. I met a guy who reminded me of young hippie version of Robin Williams. He was a case manager at one of the facilities for homeless youth and liked to jabber on about how he thought everyone was attracted to him—his boss, his co-workers, his clients. He introduced me to my manager, Jaime, who hired me, regardless of my impressive career in nude lap dancing. My entry level counseling position required no actually counseling at all, but my duties ran the gamut from nurse to babysitter, DJ to watchdog, secretary to cook. Basically, a fancy, non-profit style caretaker with paid holidays and fat funding.
We recorded the clients notable behavior in a big black plastic binder, which was hidden in a drawer upstairs in the RA office. Other than enforcing house rules, my job was to provide a safe home for a half-dozen 17-24 year-old HIV positive, mentally unstable, drug addicted clients and encourage them to dispose their hypodermic needles in bright orange sharps containers that were attached to the walls near the front office downstairs, where case managers had small locked offices with file cabinets and enormous piles of folders. Never once did I envy their job, even though that was the only way for a residential assistant to progress. So I hung around in the reception area and handed clients sack lunches with turkey sandwiches and Capri Sun juices. One chocolate chip cookie. When they were really super good— a movie pass.
In the community room were couches that were way better than the ones in my shared Mission apartment. The Polk Inn couches had sturdy blonde wood and fluffy new cushions, a far cry from the ratty couches I lugged home from put-out night and St. Vinny’s that were more like scratching posts with springs that tickled your tailbone when you leaned back.
During the day, the reception area was loud. Almost deafening. Clients met with their case managers to talk and to determine if they were progressing or declining: if the drugs were working. I helped Jim with his cover letter and sucked Capri Suns. Jim was a dashing, high functioning gay man who was graduating soon from our program. He had an actual job in an office somewhere. His blazer, shoes and sunglasses combined were worth more than my apartment. The phones rang non-stop. In the late afternoon when the fog wiped away the sun and the case managers went home, we took over the Polk Inn. It became our world. I made myself at home just as the fog covered the sky like a silver screen.
* * * * * * * *
I always look forward to my shift on Sunday afternoon, which means an early dinner and movie night. I’ll bake chicken and rice and make the brownies from a mix for dessert. My red key chain wraps around my wrist and jangles against the refrigerator and pantry. This key opens every door in the building. After I dump my purse, coat and motorcycle helmet in the RA closet, I gather pans for my delicious chicken dish. I grab butter and carrots and chop an onion, throw it all in the pans for an hour and kill the smell of stale fish sticks and antiseptic. The kitchen has sliding glass doors that open out into a patio where clients smoke on aluminum chairs in the chilly, bright sun. White plastic ashtrays filled with rainwater overflow with butts floating in the ash.
Armando’s short and thin, maybe 5 feet tall and Hispanic, with loose khaki Ben Davies shorts and a studded black belt. He smears grease on his majestic black curls. He wears a silver knot chain around his neck, and it’s thick and heavy. It seems uncharacteristically butch. Phil, the other RA warned me the other day. “Armando’s a cutter,” he said. But, today, Armando slumps in a chair in the courtyard, with a black journal and set of skinny pens. He’s drawing alone. Once in a while he wipes his wily curls aside. Picks up another pen and shades.
“Want a snack?” I ask him. He shakes his head and tears another piece of coarse white paper from his black journal and makes more designs. His face is serious and tense. He draws angels and devils in loopy magnificent detail. One has a huge menacing orchid overtaking an angel wielding a sword. I look over his shoulder while he draws.
“This is so good,” I say.
“I’m going to go to Academy of Art.” He stands up. Looks at his work from a more discerning angle. Sits back down.
“Can you play some music? Philip always plays music.”
“Sure.” I find a Radiohead CD and a Jill Scott CD that another RA left behind on her shift. Pop in the Jill Scott.
In the community room, I hear “Miss Congeniality,” playing loudly on the big flat-screened TV. It was the movie they all voted for unanimously. Allesandra, a Native American tranny and Revo, the junkie skateboarder play cards on one couch. Gina just got in and was upset over a spat with her boyfriend. She’s very pregnant. She walked straight to her room with no dinner. Donald, the autistic happy redhead shuffles by in white pajamas and slippers.
“Can I have a snack?” is all I’ve ever heard him say. I show him cookies or an apple. He takes the cookies. Shuffles to the couch for the movie.
A woman I don’t recognize from the security camera in the front office rings the buzzer. She’s brought what appears to be hundreds of lilies wrapped in saran wrap. Says they’re from a wedding. Can she donate them? I don’t see why not. Armando puts down his drawings and smiles huge.
“Lilies! My favorite! Can we decorate?” He’s exasperated with joy. We spend the next thirty minutes cutting the tops off of empty water bottles with scissors, filling them with flowers and water then placing the fragrant white lilies on every surface. We even place some in the case managers and reception office and when we do this Armando prances with jerky dance moves as if to say “Ta Da!”
“Can I have one in my room?” He looks pleased. He knows I will allow it; that I’m a pushover. He doesn’t wait for my permission. I watch him carry the flowers to his room, which is on the second floor next to the RA office. Then I don’t see him for the rest of my shift, until I knock on his door to give him meds. When I do, he shows me two small gold-framed pictures of his mother and sister. Their faces round and hazy like from an eighties after school special, but he’s only been a resident for a few months and is twenty-two. He told me they don’t talk to him anymore because he’s a gay hooker. When he says it his eyes flash wildly— are practically flirtatious. He doesn’t smile. My entry for him reads : Armando was social, helpful and productive. He worked on his beautiful drawings and helped me decorate.
I work four tens at the Polk Inn, but afterwards, I moonlight. After I fill out my time sheet, I ride my motorcycle a couple quick blocks up to O’Farrell Street in the wet cold night where I still strip at The Century until 4AM. I planned to quit when I started the RA gig because the clubs were so dead, and I was burnt out, but my paychecks are small and my rent too high. I’m not allowed to tell my coworkers or the clients that I strip—or to divulge any personal information, especially my handful of years in AA. It’s considered unprofessional self-disclosure. This is a harm reduction gig.
The same night of the Lilies, after my shift at the Polk Inn, I met a client on the floor at The Century who asked to meet me at a hotel for $800 the next night and I agreed. Over dinner, he drugged me with GHB and I knew something was wrong, so I drank water and shoveled food down my face as quickly as possible. No one knew where I was that night. I tucked the secret deep inside and went to work at the Polk Inn, hoping my insides didn’t leak out on my clients. I was supposed to be better than that. I was supposed to help them.
By the time I show up for my shift at the Polk Inn, all hell broke loose. I was reprimanded for allowing Armando to get anywhere near the scissors and told to never do that again. “They could also cut themselves on the edges of those water bottles,” my manager said. He was right, but I didn’t feel remorse. I thought it was a feat to make Armando smile and dance because he’d done something beautiful and we shared a love of lilies—our favorite flower.
Allesandra died in a knife fight on the street and Revo disappeared for a couple days. Gina was in the hospital in labor so she’d moved out of our facility and into the one that housed single mothers. I walked into the kitchen, which is the first thing I do in any new place to feel comfortable. Stood in the chill and considered my options: a carrot? It was quiet and eerie under the glaring lights. Diana, another tranny rushed out the front door with a little wave. She dabbled in crack and was known for her fits of paranoia, but I hardly ever saw her.
I ordered Dominoes pizza in case some clients showed up for dinner. I heard loud music blaring from upstairs. It was Armando’s room, so I grabbed his meds from the office and knocked on his door.
“Can you turn that down?” He opened his door a couple inches.
“Why? No one’s here.”
“I’m trying to order us pizza.” His eyes were two black holes.
“I’m not hungry.” I handed him his meds. He shook his head. Shut his door. I ducked into the RA office and wrote in the binder: Armando was asked to turn his music down. Refused his HIV and psyche meds.
Downstairs, I gorged on three pieces of drippy pepperoni pizza and replayed the night with the client who drugged me. He’d offered me water while we waited for our table in the restaurant. I felt all foggy and dizzy and almost peed my pants. I crossed over the line from dancer to hooker like it was nothing and wondered if being surrounded by street economy invaded my brain cells, made it natural. I used my red key to open an empty client apartment and locked myself in the bathroom. Turned the light on. Stuck my finger down my throat. Threw up in the toilet. I hadn’t told anyone about the $800 client or the GHB. Armando was right. No one was here. Not even me. I wanted to sit in the dark and blast music too, rock back and forth in my own emptiness. Rock it away.
Disgusted with myself, I washed my face and hands and dried them. Armando’s music played louder and louder. “God Damn it,” I mumbled. I walked down the hall and banged on his door. He didn’t open it.
“Armando!” I kept knocking.
“I’m coming in, Armando.” I unlocked his door and noticed my key chain still had some puke on it. I wiped it on my jeans. The door was heavy because he’d used a bookshelf to blockade it. I pushed my whole body against it. Armando stood holding a wooden bat and his head was cut and bloody. There was blood on his hands and face, dripping down his forehead. His eyes were fierce and lacked any of the softness from the other day. His gaze was ecstatic and free, like an angel floating in cool moonlight.
“I’m okay,” he said.
He dropped the bloody bat on the shiny wooden floor. Both of us froze together, still in the dark room with blood under our feet. “I’m okay,” he said again. My empty shame and his released rage stood together staring eye to eye. I closed the door. Backed away into the hall and called my manager. “Call 9-11,” he said. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want Armando to go anywhere. I wanted to throw a blanket over him and pat him on the head and hand him a movie pass, but within a few moments that could’ve been thirty seconds or a half-hour, the door buzzed.
In the front office, the security camera showed the black guy with the ghetto blaster was still bouncing to his beats. Behind him were six men in black. I’d never seen them before: the SWAT team. They wrapped Armando up and took him away on a stretcher. His expression seemed to ask me why? As if it was the most natural thing in the world, to sit in the dark and draw blood. Yes, it was.
“You’ll be okay,” I whispered to the closed door after the men place him in the ambulance. I stood in the street. No one was there at all. No one.