Author’s Note: The is the third of a four-part memoir serial of the author’s teenage adventure into a world he didn’t expect beneath Eureka’s old waterfront.
I hadn’t come up well-to-do. In my heart of hearts, I thought government cheese tasted pretty good. Welfare at times put a roof over my family’s head, and brought home the bacon it so often saved.
We knew poverty, mental illness, and addiction. We also knew how to work hard — especially my mother. She embodied feminism even though she wilted every time my Dad raised his voice. She pulled double duty as Dad’s caretaker, nursemaid and housekeeper for both me and my older brother Greg, then turned around to work swing and sometimes overnight shift as chief provider.
She toiled at almost every shift you can stamp on a timecard to keep the cupboards half-empty and the fridge full enough of 2 percent milk and bologna to keep her ravenous kids and half-baked beau from devouring the second hand furniture.
Don’t hang your welfare stereotypes on my family, because they don’t apply. Just as they won’t on most people who apply for and receive government assistance.
The truth, as in most cases, is a lot more complicated.
Despite my experience with low-wattage economics, descending into those waterfront catacombs that day in 1992 was the first time I came eye-to-eye with real poverty. There wasn’t a soul in the building beside the three of us.
Discarded clothing, broken down tents, garbage of every possible form and function from empty milk cartons and cast off shoes to a rusted frying pan and a blackened toilet seat, cracked and mounted on a concrete ledge as if to form a throne for this nightmare court of foundling refugees.
Mostly, though, the garbage and whole cloth piles were shoved into makeshift nests. Some centered around fire pits, which were themselves filled with half-scorched blocks of driftwood, a melted microwave, a rather neat pile of twigs gathered from somewhere far from here, and sundry.
The scope of this great hall could hardly be overstated. As I mentioned, we climbed down the trail to make our way in — yet the building itself was easily two stories tall at street level. From inside, it was easily as large as Jay Willard Gymnasium, Eureka High’s Tomb of the Unknown High School Loser.
The trail we followed in came up through what had been a floor, but had since been hollowed out. This was where all the camps, nests, and garbage seemed to cluster. There were four walls, intact and tagged with a scattered rainbow palette of graffiti — human anatomy was richly detailed before our eyes, accurately labeled if crudely so, by folk artists of every street tradition.
What remained of the floor formed a ledge around the edges of this center pit. A few windows in the wall, in the upper floor, allowed in the gray daze of light from the overcast sky outside. It was darker than the hour allowed. Rain was coming.
I didn’t know what I’d expected to find on this trip, but this was disheartening.
“Wow,” Kyle said, “This is awesome — a zombie village!”
Arms waving, voice quavering, he Frankenstein walked into the camps and kicked at the various piles of chaos, making even more of a mess out of what was already a scene of considerable mayhem.
“You’re worried about lead paint and playing around in that shit?” Mike barked. He wasn’t laughing. He folded his arms, creeped out by the room and everything in it.
Kyle slowed his antics, but the grin never left his face.
Always mercurial, my mood at that moment was shifting fast from one extreme to the other.
I was disgusted on one hand both by the place and the people who lived here, yet I knew enough about being poor to know that sometimes it only took a couple of bad turns for a secure situation to transform into hopelessness. Given my own father’s schizophrenia, my family had been on the verge a time or two. That fear had nearly strangled me. The cops, the landlord and my mother negotiating our future on the front porch as Dad raged in the back seat of the squad car, his blood obscuring our view of his face through the window.
I can only imagine, but once you don’t have a home, a whole different set of rules must begin to apply. Eat or be eaten.
I wandered slowly away from my friends, leaving them as they poked among the boxes and concrete blocks for sticks with which to battle, toys with which to play.
Eager to be so enthralled. I shook off my malaise and let funtown capture me, as well. This was so different than anything I’d ever seen before. Why not play along? Dad’s dead, we’re both much better off now, and I dragged everybody down here. Might as well have fun, right?
A fence rail called to me as Mike and Kyle battled. I grabbed a nearby piece of cloth off the ground to protect my hand from splinters and wrapped both fists around the fence slat’s base. Half-buried in muck like Arthur’s Excalibur, I yanked with all my strength and nearly flipped over backwards when the damn thing emerged with almost no resistance at all.
Theatrically, I turned my misstep into a camouflaged attack, and both Kyle and Mike suffered quick strikes to the shins, their sorry squeals echoing off the high walls, and when they both bent over to grab their sore spots, I unceremoniously shoved them into separate garbage piles.
I knew I was going to pay for that; it was only a matter of time.
All chivalry was dead, I thus declared. “Aha, suckers!”
I danced past the vanquished, complaining foes and ran up the embankment to what had been floor level. On the narrow landing, I paraded back and forth, pounding my chest, pumping my sword overhead as Mike and a glowering Kyle finally gathered at my feet. Once they’d stood there for an appropriately absurd amount of time, I plopped my chubby ass down on the toilet seat,
“I am King of the Underworld!” I declared. Almost to perfectly punctuate my sentence, the wooden seat beneath me cracked in half, and I dropped that much closer to the ground. It was humbling.
“You’re an asshole,” Kyle said. “Try hitting me in the shin again and see what happens.”
I was going to have rein this boy in — death by lash could not be ruled out for such recalcitrant traitors.
“James, this blows,” Mike said. “Where’s the cereal? I’m hungry.”
The cold, purple fury of royal disapprobation erupted forth, scorching a path through the gathered plebeians.
“I could believe it coming from him, Mike, but never you?” My face contorted into a twisted rictus. “I thought you were my companions!” Somewhere, wings beat for an exit. Grabbing the shred of cloth off my hands, I unceremoniously waved in front of his face, wrist limp, nearly slapping him.
“What of our banner? So many lives fought for and lost beneath its glory?”
I loved high drama, and I was thinking on my feet. Forgive the cliches, but hey — we were having a good time. At least I was.
Soon, it would be their turn. As I was increasingly indignant with feigned rage, Kyle had tiptoed around to the side of the throne and pulled a Vader — he just lifted me off the ledge and removed me from the throne.
Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized how strong he was. He carried me kicking, writhing, gnashing and yelling about loyalty, feudalism, battlefield banners, death and betrayal, over to a wet pile of trash. Moments before, the skies had opened up. The camps on the floor were located precisely between where the leaks were located — the piles of trash not so much. I landed headfirst with a splash.
Noticing the sad and limp banner, Kyle picked it up off the ground and flung it at me. I’d had the wind knocked out of my chest, but was mostly having the time of my life.
“Here’s your fucking banner, Warrior King,” Kyle said. “A pair of little girl’s panties.”
Even as the words left his mouth, what he’d said registered with all of us. Either a little girl had been living here — a terrible, awful situation all by itself — or worse.
Way. Goddamn. Worse.
The underpants undertook a flat trajectory through the miasmal air currents, across a landscape at that moment of destitution, a wounded and wingless bird. Where was the girl? I shook my head. I didn’t want to follow that thought through, but couldn’t help it. Worse yet, I was grateful to not be in her shoes.
I threw up, harsh and loud, all over myself.
It hurt. I felt like I deserved it. I couldn’t shake the thought — a little girl down in this hell hole? Even if she was someone’s daughter, couldn’t they have asked for help, a family member? Her down here, either living in a rat’s nest hellhole or maybe worse, a situation I can’t even describe because it made me vomit my stomach out of my throat, and the best thing my teenage brain could come up with on it’s own was good thing it ain’t me?
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.