Night In The City

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood.
Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts

The Taxi Driver
"Hey man, you wanna buy this gun?" says the yellowy-eyed Latino man in the back seat who has introduced himself as Hank. "For $80 it's yours, mister. A Glock compact .45, ya won't go wrong."

He lifts the weapon toward the front seat so the driver and I can see it, its shiny and strangely optimistic image recurring in rhythm with the streetlights passing overhead.

I shake my head.
"C'mon, you should take it before I get it to somebody else," he croaks in a dry and caustic voice that suggests ill-spent time in meth euphoria. "C'mon, man."

Hank had flagged us as we headed west on Van Buren, just east of 32nd Street. He said he wanted to be dropped at 17th Drive where he's "got some shit waitin'."

The driver, Joe, doesn't seem to mind that there is a gun floating around in his car; at least if he does, it doesn't show. Perhaps he knows something I don't, some kind of unwritten cabbie rule that states you are safe when not driving alone. (Joe isn't his real name--he'd be given the boot if his cab company knew he let me ride with him.)

At Fifth Avenue and Van Buren I begin to wonder if Hank will ditch the sales pitch and shoot us instead, giving him free rein to all we have on us.

"Man, you ain't gonna get it this good," the gun salesman whines. Joe rolls his eyes.

We round the corner at 17th Place, and Hank instructs us to stop at a low bluish apartment building just past Van Buren. We roll to a stop, and for a moment I wait for the blast, the quick flash of a bullet, and then my eyeballs with brains in tow speeding toward the windshield.

The shot never comes.
Instead Hank puts the gun away, pays Joe and climbs out. I watch him move toward the cheerless dwelling. We drive out of there, and I wonder if delving into the downtrodden Phoenix night as an active participant really holds as much promise as I thought.

"What the hell was that all about," I ask Joe as we move to our next pick-up at the Jungle topless bar downtown, "Is it always like this?"

"Really, if I thought that guy was trouble I never would have stopped," Joe says confidently, his strange, blue, birdlike tattoo faded and slumped across the wattled skin of his biceps, half covered by his shirt sleeve.

Cab drivers are not without their harrowing stories, and Joe shares one about a time he picked up a guy who robbed him for the 60 bucks he was carrying; the guy also stabbed him. "I wound up in the hospital," Joe says.

Joe's face is lined with pure late-night resignation--the kind reserved for those who have lived through hell--like he knows he is past the point of fresh opportunity. Like his driving a cab in and around downtown Phoenix in the wee hours makes perfect sense, as if there were nothing else in life for him.

At the Jungle I wait in the taxi as Joe goes in. The interior of Joe's cab has a distinct mammalian odor, and the comforting warmth of a living room.

A minute later Joe returns with a gray-haired man in a suit. Once we get moving, the man's head bobs around in the back seat. He slurs his directions home, mouthing something to do with Camelback and Seventh Street. Joe finds the place and helps the guy to his door.

Joe is a big man, so getting in and out of the cab isn't the easiest task. When he makes it back behind the wheel he says, "That was worth it, that guy tipped me 11 bucks."

"Are the drunks the ones keeping you afloat?" I ask.
He nods and answers, "Because of the DUI laws in Arizona, I make my rent on time. I ain't complainin'."

Joe tells me stories of getting free peep-show entertainment, and the occasional blowjob, from dancers and whores who catch rides in his taxi. Once, a couple got in and fucked in the back seat while he drove around the city, observing the schtup through the rearview.

"It was like they wanted me to watch, that was their whole game. We drove around like that for an hour, they just wanted me to drive. When it was over, I took them to a bar, and they paid me the fare."

On duty, he regularly gets offered coke, speed, heroin, pot and "every drug on the planet." He adds that he never accepts.

This night is a slow one according to Joe. There is waiting around, sitting in parking lots, even. "Usually on a night like this, I've done twice this much business."

The final dispatch comes after 3 a.m. and has us back on Van Buren, at the Circle K at 20th Street.

The pick-up is a frighteningly skinny woman who gives her name as Sue. She is shivering. She has teeth like a Halloween cemetery, her made-up face a mess of futile colors against a spider web of insults; she says she is 30, and if that is true, then life has ridden her mercilessly into premature old age. Her eyes bug out and dart around the sights along the roadway.

We drive west on Van Buren toward the Bank One high-rise, its opulence like a condescending apparition above downtown, constant and masculine. To the south the low hills of South Mountain give way to a shadowed range with a cluster of glowing red television towers at the top, standing like eerie flickering sentries. And to the north, on Taylor Street we drop Sue off in front of what Joe says is a crack house, a big wooden thing built in the teens with a dirt yard and chain-link fence. We watch the woman bounce toward the house and all the promise it holds for her, her steps energized and full of intent.

Dollars for Derriere
"Why do I have to leave?" asks the incredulous, seemingly straight-up fellow with short dark hair who's decked in preppy, frat-house attire.

"Because you grabbed that girl's ass, dude," answers the diminutive security-guard-with-a-cop-complex as he escorts the antagonist out through the big front doors of the Alaskan Bush Company all-nude show club.

In the entrance, a considerable stuffed Alaskan Vortex bear in a glass cage looms, perpetually caught in attack mode, snarling down on the clientele, an ironic symbol of pent-up sexual tension, perhaps the motivation behind many who easily cough up a week's pay in a night here. The photographer and I make our way in.

Inside, a few hundred blue- and white-collar males in various degrees of slow, focused perception are seated around spacious floor tables or in roomy, semiprivate booths. The men's expressions are vague, often blank, relaxed in a kind of pre-ejaculatory, mouth-breathing reverie. Whatever they are thinking, it is conceivably and ultimately private; veiled thoughts of longing, wonder and unfulfilled desire; the turning of illusion into something tangible.

Female anatomy decorated in sheer and lacy ribbons and bows is the hardware used to color their illusions, to liberate these men of their cash. Fifty or so girls running the gamut from Pamela Lee clones and Rubenesque Latinas to zaftig Afro-Americans are here offering table dances and conversation. In catwalks of sass, attitude and sexual persona, some girls parade the scene eagle-eyed for the legal tender, while others stand along the edges of the room bored, nodding in agreement with co-workers about how economy-minded the men are on this particular night.

Above the crowd in the club's main room--a ski lodge-like brown, stone affair--Old West-style wagon-wheel chandeliers adorned with strips of lighted neon hang from a beamed ceiling 30 feet up. The DJ spins a mix of thundering bombast--techno, hip-hop and Eighties metal, bracketed by a morning drive-time radio patter saying things like: Put your hands together gentlemen, for lovely Nikki, she'll rock your world and bring you wood.

Lighting fixtures shoot primary-colored beams in and around the action in time with the DJ's throb. A stage with two vertical poles and a giant wall mirror is against the north wall. Across the room a bar serves up nonalcoholic beverages like coffee, water and juice. (Arizona law permits that only nonalcoholic beverages be served in nude joints, precisely why they are allowed to stay open until 3 a.m.)

Men don't come here to get plowed. Obviously, they are here for the girls; for the imagery, the personification of an unrealistic and biased image of women. And the women here are ready to profit from that; it's what gives the stripper all of her power.

Summer, 22, a three-and-a-half year veteran of nude dancing, has a close-cropped blonde coif, an indoor tan and a heavily aerobicized torso--the preferred physique of most dancers. Her implanted chest is covered by a Hooters tee shirt a couple sizes too small.

"I dance to all kinds of music, preferably rock," Summer purrs. "I like Marilyn Manson, the 'Beautiful People.' . . . I am beautiful." Summer's voice imparts a coy suggestiveness like a Machiavellian cheerleader. She tilts her head when speaking, to affect an innocence, helping one to forget momentarily, even in these surroundings, that she publicly unfurls her orifices for a living.

"I love to turn everyone on, I do," she says, then adds reluctantly--like the answer is sure to disappoint--"But I prefer men over women."

As quickly as Summer offered herself for interview, she is up, out of her seat and off into the hazy, cigarette-smoked interior. The girl has money to earn. Aubrey slides into her place.

"Because I love to sit on cocks," says native Arizonan Aubrey Lovely sarcastically about why she works in the sex industry. Lovely is 24, looks 12, and has a manner of speech that upholds that appearance.

"Yeah, well, actually I've aged a lot in the last three years. When I first started dancing (three-and-a-half years ago) people wouldn't give me the time of day because they thought I was really 12. Really."

Lovely is fine-boned with breast-length tawny hair. She is tattoo-free with blue eyes and a failed marriage behind her. She tells me she is also drug-free.

"I find that a lot of the girls who do drugs usually don't make very good money anyway. And I have to admit when I do drugs it's like one hit off a joint of pot like every three months."

And her marriage?
"I got divorced like three-and-half years ago because my man had different ideals than me. He actually works in a porn store now, the Castle Boutique. He's totally into the sex world too, he likes hangin' out with porn stars and stuff like that."

"I have a degree in graphic design from Al Collins [graphic design school]. I want to make a living from selling my art," Lovely says abruptly, as if to stress that her job here is temporary, as if it has its downside.

I ask her if the men who come here think they can walk out of here with a dancer.

"I actually think that there are a lot of guys who think that they have a chance with a dancer" says Lovely. They think that if they have a lot of money they can get 'em, or it's because they are cute or whatever. To me, they are just desperate."

On the stage, girls systematically drop lingerie to the rhythm of the moment, ultimately baring all by the song's climax. A crowd of men gathers at the bow of the platform, some bending over backward onto the stage with bills sticking from their mouths allowing the dancer to gyrate bare-assed above him, then lower herself just enough to reach the bills with her hand. There is no touching, and the men don't seem to mind.

Heidi, 19, is pale-skinned with green eyes and kinky brown hair, and is built like a gymnast. Wearing a white lace G-string and matching knee-high stockings, she has just returned from an onstage performance and is glistening in sweat as if glazed with a light coat of baby oil.

Heidi says she is in love with dancing--loves dancing nude, and has been doing it for two months. A Phoenix native, Heidi graduated high school a year early in Queen Creek and attended college for a semester but quit to earn money. Heidi is sober, articulate and breaks her syntax with an all-but-annoying laughter, giddy almost.

She says she is bisexual.
"I have a girlfriend and a boyfriend who I live with. They're the ones who got me into dancing nude."

Mstley CrYe's "Girls, Girls, Girls" pollutes the air around us, and a waitress swings by with more alcohol-free beverages. More girls come around when they see the camera flashes.

"Between $500 and a $1,000," says Princess with a smile when explaining her cash take here on a worthwhile night of stripping. "I love dancing nude, and the customers know that."

Princess is 18 and graduated from high school this year in Flagstaff. Her body is like a German expressionist's subject--curvy and natural--with a tattoo on her lower back that extends to each hip. After four months' dancing experience, Princess already considers herself an old hand at the nude game. She appears well-fed with a healthy, outdoorsy kind of glow. "I love mountain climbing," she says.

What else does she do?
"Shop," she answers jovially. Princess flirts conspicuously with another girl for the New Times photographer, and it's obvious she loves the camera.

Are most girls that work here bisexual?
"Yeah, and they all love me," laughs the ivory-hued blonde, then adds, "We all love each other."

With decadent little peepshows that contradict her name, Princess goes to lengths to please the gentlemen for whom she dances; Princess at work is bathroom-wall scribble personified; she's a porno Aphrodite who moves in serpentine gestures and dominates the stage as if it were an altar of worship built specifically for her.

Dixie, 22, a nursing major, lives in Glendale and is a Mormon. She has a 4-year-old son. This is her third night as a nude exotic dancer; she also works in a hospital as a phlebotomist. Tonight she is dolled up in a red XXX-rated Santa's helper dress, garb appropriate for a holiday-minded fetishist or a biology student with a sense of humor.

"I figured I got the body, I'm young, I might as well profit off of it," she says, explaining why she's here. I've resuscitated people, I've worked in trauma. That's my major, that's what I want to do with my life. I love helping other people. When you're pounding on somebody's chest trying to bring them back to life, it does not compare to this. But this makes more money."

Does she like the way men treat her here?
"They treat me better here than they do at the hospital. Some of the men here are jerks, though."

Does she see herself developing a healthy case of man hatred after working here awhile?

"No, you expect men to act a certain way here. Here they can come and be Al Bundys, to kick back and just be Neanderthals. I've been in male strip joints and the women go wild. Men are more reserved here."

Through the main room, around the pool tables and down a hall to the back are the dressing and locker rooms. The dressing room is well-lit, clean and comfy enough for the dozen or so half-naked women who are sitting around, wearily applying makeup, or engaging in catty chatter. An attar of hairspray, lavender and cigarettes hangs heavily in the air. The walls are lined with lighted rectangle mirrors, and a tanning bed occupies one corner. Dancer costumes hang from a long portable rack in the middle of the spacious room, and a candy machine sits by the entrance. Some guy who looks like Bon Jovi's keyboard player circa 1987 fusses with a dancer's hair. A massage table is set up on which Joylee, a lithesome, creamy-skinned girl clad in only a G-string, lies face-down. Her exhausted limbs are getting the go over by one Frank, a 60-year-old glabrous-headed gentleman who has been a masseur since the '60s. He has an Astaire-like grace.

Frank, it turns out, has worked on some of the most desired torsos around: Las Vegas showgirls. Before that he was a dancer, touring the country with an international dance troupe.

"I only work on women, I don't work on men," he says. "I can't deal with the body hair. I don't like putting suntan oil on myself."

Female only then, right?
"A woman's body is entirely different than a man's," he says, his face drawn into a seriousness that says his job is not boy's stuff, not something to joke about. "Her psyche is entirely different. It is what sexuality is all about."

Does he have many job complaints?
"What do you think?" he responds, laughing softly, his hands kneading Joylee's oiled lower back and derriere. Joylee lies there contentedly, with eyes closed, smiling.

Washing Windows
On 16th Street, south past Roosevelt on the west side of the road, is the low-lying Garfield neighborhood, a collection of half-lovely, half-discarded Spanish style, cinder-block and flimsy wood homes mostly inhabited by Latino families. There is a searing presence of jets flying overhead from nearby Sky Harbor airport. In the evening, children with handfuls of coins play on the streets and chase popsicle trucks. The air is filled with distorted Tejano music and bouquets of home cooking: meat dishes, rice and tortillas. At night teenage Chicana girls wearing flared hip-huggers travel in groups to the nearby Kmart, and mothers push babies in strollers that dangle rosaries as older toddlers bounce alongside. Teenage boys band together under street lamps, and men talk, laugh and drink on their porches. On the east side of 16th Street is St. Luke's hospital, and surrounding that are dormitory-like dwellings for government-subsidized families.

Servicing a portion of Garfield's resident needs is a cluster of businesses on the southeast corner of Roosevelt and 16th Street. There, a scraggly laundromat is always crowded with people waiting around as if expecting some celebration to start. There is a check-cashing center--a mainstay enterprise located wherever a profit is to be made from people who don't earn one. There is a panderia selling prayer candles and saint cards. And in this area one can also purchase a new identity; passports, social security cards and fake state IDs are available at negotiable prices. And there are plenty of places to cop heroin and crack.

Here a person can score a couple hits of crack cocaine for less than the price of a bean burrito. And some do purchase amounts that small, usually addicts who get lucky with a minimum of panhandling effort. Thirty-eight-year-old David Hodge knows such efforts only too well.

"What coke does to me is, is it makes me not give a shit. It takes the pain away," he says standing under the lights at Ramiro's 24-hour Mexican food drive-through, his brittle, sandy brown hair curling up at his neck from under a dirty cap, his dull green eyes reflecting one in countless sets of headlights he looks into in a night.

"When I have money, I don't always go for coke, but I do some of the time, but I don't want to."

Hodge is homeless, usually residing under a bush on Willetta behind the Kmart at 16th Street and Roosevelt. He has no blankets with which to stay warm, and his only jacket was recently stolen. Hodge spends his nights on these streets armed with a squeegee, a water bucket and a spray bottle of glass cleaner--the tools of his current trade as a car window washer. He offers a first-class window cleaning in exchange for a tip, dubious employment that most would call panhandling.

Soft-spoken, diminutive and resigned, Hodge has all but raised the white flag of surrender. "I know I can't continue to go on like this. Sometimes I wish I was dead, but part of me wants me to put my life back together and get back to my family."

As stated, Hodge's drug of choice is not booze. So it is with some wonder that he notes, "You'd be surprised about how many people are willing to give beer instead of money; they think I need beer instead of the money. If I drank I'd be plastered all the time at no expense."

In his squalor-ready attire, politely offering up his services to car after car, knowing full well that most of the cars' occupants will scorn him, Hodge in action is a man embracing his own cheerless futility, like a window-washing Sisyphus.

In the low-tolerance climate Phoenix currently offers its homeless, it's not surprising that on a regular basis, Hodge gets ridiculed, hassled and, sometimes, pounded on.

"I did get the crap beat out of me one night a couple months ago. The Texaco down on Seventh Street. There was this biker kind of guy workin' there, and for some reason he didn't like me. I went in and asked for a pack of matches, and he wouldn't give them to me. All the other employees always gave them to me, and he wouldn't. He was really shitty towards me. And as I'm walking out I see this guy at the gas pump and I simply ask him, "Sir would you possibly have a book of matches in your truck that I could get from you? And this guy's coming up behind me going, 'leave the customers alone.'"

Hodge wearily takes a seat on the curb to finish his story, like the weight of it is forcing him to, like he can no longer uphold the weight of his existence. "I'm not a fighter by any means, and I made a mistake by saying, 'You know what, you're a prejudiced son of a bitch.' And he just fuckin' attacked. He came from behind my back and whacked my head. I started running, and he chased me down. I tripped, and he started beating on me. He did a number on me. I mean, he left customers in the store when he went chasing me.

"I was a mess. I had a beard then, and it was soaked in blood and everything. I could barely walk, my ribs were fractured, and I had no money. I approached a guy and asked him if he could help me get to the hospital, for bus fare, 'cause I didn't have any money. He just jumped in his car and drove off, didn't even acknowledge my presence.

"The night manager of the Whataburger on McDowell saw me ask this man, and she told me to quit bothering the customers. I ended up asking about four people, and they just snubbed their noses at me. I never made it to the hospital.

"Though I'll tell you what, I found the Mexicans to be the best people around here, over whites, blacks. They are the ones most willing to help."

Years ago, after moving to Phoenix from Indiana as a child, Hodge turned into someone else after one too many sucker punches from booze and coke. First went his ability to keep a regular job as a diner cook. Then the man's family wanted no part of him--including his wife, their three kids and a grandchild, basically everything he had. The final boot into homelessness came three months ago.

"I've been here [in Phoenix] for 29 years," he says sadly, his yellowy face cracked with fleshy chasms more appropriate for a man twice his age. "I went clean and stayed clean for quite a while. I kinda slipped and relapsed, and my family disowned me. Basically, I lost my job and family and ended up in the streets. I was staying at my sister's at the time [until three months ago] in Avondale when I relapsed and used. She could tell, and she kicked my butt out. And living in the streets it is almost impossible to stay away from drugs, ya know?"

Hodge has attempted rehab five times, including an eight-month stint in the Set Free Christian Discipleship, a shelter with the resources to help a homeless person negotiate his drug addiction. He has attempted numerous times to successfully stay with the Alcoholics Anonymous program, lasting two months in a 12-step-based halfway house. And now without a valid ID card, he finds it impossible to be taken in by a homeless shelter.

"A lot of people ask me--when they get smart with me when I do try and get money--they say St. Vincent de Paul feeds the homeless. I realize that, but that place is infested with drugs. You cannot go down there without people just swarming around you going, 'How much, how much?' I've struggled with it long enough without having to go down there. I know if I go down there, I know I am going to use. I'll go hungry before I go down there."

Hodge says the last time he used was a few days before this interview when a man dropped a crack pipe into his hand. "A guy came through the drive-through, and I do his windows, right. And he sticks his hand out and drops a crack pipe into my hand that had a pretty good push on it. He had a 16th of rock laying right on the dash and thought nothin' of it."

As far as placing blame for his self-perpetuating tragedy, Hodge has gotten over that long ago. "I can't blame no one but myself. I tried to for a long time, but reality hit me, and it's no one's fault but mine. So, I'm the only one that can change it."

Does he ever have fun?
"No, I haven't had fun in a long time," he says, his eyes fixed on his shoes.

Does he like himself?
Hodge brings his head up, looks straight forward and answers hoarsely as tears well, "No."

The Mayor of Sunnyslope
The self-employed cement worker strides through Sunnyslope on any given night like a general who can both woo and scare his troops. Uncle Billy says he's not a hero, but some around here treat him as such, the ones who live in this desperate Sunnyslope neighborhood amidst the nocturnal drug dealing, random shootings and petty robberies.

"I love Sunnyslope, it's real," he says. "It's hard-core. To survive in Sunnyslope you have to be a stand-up motherfucker.

"Don't get me wrong with the Confederate flag; I'm not into genocide, I'm not a skinhead, or a Klansman, either one," Uncle Billy says, his deep voice distorted by a healthy sense of drama, like Orson Welles after a hard night. "I have been a Klansman, but I'm not now; and I believe in separatism, separating the races and everything. Keeping the blood pure. It's what we are about as far as I'm concerned. And I don't know about you, brother, but I don't want no nigger datin' my daughter."

The Confederate flag flies day and night on a pole that rises above Uncle Billy's house. An American flag flaps just beneath it. His house is like many on this block in economically challenged Sunnyslope: small and dilapidated with a dark interior. Outside, the small two-bedroom dwelling is a mess of old car parts, toys and junk. The inside is neglected and dirty, the impecunious downside to a clan of eight children and two adults crammed into small quarters.

Uncle Billy has a rapid-fire mouth and the sometimes manic look of a man who could scare anything, the look of a man who takes absolutely no shit from anyone; base gray eyes, leathery skin; muscular, toned and tattooed. A proletariat pariah.

Born Billy Crockett 46 years ago of Scottish, Irish and Welsh descent, his genealogy includes members of the Ku Klux Klan as well as Davy Crockett, he says. Of his two brothers, one was murdered, the other imprisoned. Uncle Billy appears scrappy, almost folksy, dressed perennially in jeans, his fingers are garnished with an ornate selection of heavy silver rings shaped as various skulls and Eagles--"legal brass knuckles," he calls them. He has three grown children, two of them daughters who live in a trailer behind his house.

"My son was at one time a skinhead; I got him away from that 'cause it's a suicide mission," he says.

For years Uncle Billy has been surrounded by a coterie of Sunnyslope partisans who speak of him with reverence. The kids in this neighborhood christened him Uncle Billy, and some refer to him as the Mayor of Sunnyslope. You always know where you stand with him, they say.

Like any ghettoized area, groups of people who live outside of the law live here; therefore, not many residents trust the cops. There is an evident us-against-them mentality that suggests normal laws don't apply here, that these people have their own standards of right and wrong, their own set of rules. People come to Uncle Billy for help, help in finding a thief, a rapist, even a murderer. He has their confidence, their trust.

"Yeah," says Payaso, an unemployed 22-year-old standing with a group of younger friends. "He makes it safe. But I wouldn't want to get him mad; I wouldn't want to see that," he says, suggesting that Uncle Billy could and would take somebody's head off.

Uncle Billy talks about the kids living on his street, like some patriarch in a land of single mothers. "This kid (Payaso) lived at my house for a year-and-a-half; he had nowhere to go when he first got out of juvenile. These kids are hard-core; they seen the streets. And for some, this is the high point of their lives. I tried kicking their ass; you can't kick their ass and teach 'em nothin'. This guy (pointing to a kid named Jason)--he'll sit and drink beer and piss on five bucks an hour (wages)."

Debbie, 40, a neighbor, says, "Uncle Billy's helped a lot of people; that's why people look up to him. He's given me money when I needed it, when I was starving and down and out."

Debbie's roommate, Yvette, a young Asian woman agrees, "He's a good guy, she says. He's kinda racist but never towards me."

Two months ago Uncle Billy took in a 33-year-old woman named Stephanie Talley and eight of her nine kids, whom, he says, had been victimized by a slumlord.

"He took me in," says Stephanie. She appears tired, malnourished, a look shared by many who live around here. "I have been approved for Section Eight housing, but I keep getting turned down for four-bedroom houses because they want no more than two kids per bedroom. He's letting me and my kids live at his house."

Neighbors still talk about the time a year ago, when Uncle Billy helped a Sunnyslope woman who had her house trailer stolen with all of her possessions. He went out, found the thieves and forced them to return the property only to discover that, in the meantime, she had lost the rental space on which she had originally lotted her home. He gave her space to park in his yard. They ran extension cords over from his house for her electricity. She remained there until she was back on her feet.

"Yeah, he's good to everybody, he's kind-hearted," says Debbie's 22-year-old daughter, Susan, a skinny, cheerful blonde with jittery eyes. "He could whoop up on somebody, I'm sure, if he wanted to. But I ain't never seen him do it. I feel safer with him living here."

Strolling up 11th Avenue, his 11th Avenue, where it slopes up toward Mountain View, Uncle Billy surveys his territory, exuding a kind of proud Pied Piper charisma. He knows everybody here and at times refers to them as his family, and they respond accordingly.

"We fuckin' take care of our own," he says. "If you prove to me that someone is a cho-mo (child molester) around here, or stole from one of us, I'll go get him for ya. I'll do him for ya. I'm hard-core reality, you bet your sweet diddly on it."

In this area, people are up all hours: the bored, the unemployed, the tragic; on bikes, on foot, on parole. Girls, boys and men and women with sallow skin, sunken eyes and racing hearts. Debbie says, "There's a hell of a lot of meth here. And now crack is getting big."

"The thing about Sunnyslope, says Uncle Billy, "the only thing different between Sunnyslope at night and in the daytime is they'll kill you a lot faster, and you can't see it coming. People die up here, dude. I've known seven of 'em that died in the last year."

He goes on, his stare direct and unsparing like Charles Manson. "Once you're part of it [Sunnyslope], it won't let you go. You can't get on your feet enough to get ahead to get out of here. I don't care how they look at it, it's a semi-ghetto. There is hard-core reality here on the streets of Sunnyslope. I've been here on the Slope and off for thirty years. I'll probably die here.


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