The Crackhead

Anne Clevenger

The first day I saw the crackhead was my first day of work.  Living near Baltimore, I had seen crackheads before, and I knew the drill: they asked for money, hung around, followed people to beg for money, got their fix, repeat.  If they’re really advanced, they’ll sit in a wheelchair with outstretched arms, just inside the lane that merges onto I-83 South, forcing every car that passes by to go around them, just before clogging the congested arteries of the highway.  I knew better than to give money or to engage.  I worked at a law firm and I was not even considering making myself into the person that gets caught up in “non-work-related” matters.  It is much easier to ignore the incessant clicking sound coming from the air conditioner than to go rooting around into a matter that really doesn’t concern you until you owe fifteen hundred to some guy in a jumpsuit.  The sad truth is, no one successful has the time, money, or interest to sustain someone else’s drug habit.

 I saw him sort of half sitting, half leaning against the industrialized flowerpots which were nestled into the windows looking out of the first floor of my office building.  He almost fit in with the stale and brittle weeds that crawled out of the pots and down to the hot concrete.  He was old, and I didn’t bother trying to figure out how old.  His face was so sunken in it looked like his skin had melted over his skull.  He had all the major qualities of a token homeless guy.  He had the layer of filth, the bad smell, the poorly fitting clothes, and none of those qualities really freaked me out.  When he spoke, however, it sent a chill up my spine.  His voice sputtered out of his mouth like a car battery before it finally dies.  His words are barely recognizable as words for two reasons.  The first being that his voice is more mechanical than human.  The second being that most of the sounds he makes are not words.  When he was tripping on drugs, he stumbled around making the same loud, car battery-like yell.  He made the same yelling sound in place of “um” or “uhh,” so speaking with him turned into me smiling and nodding a lot. 

            My first day turned into a few weeks, and each day, I would pass him a minimum of four times: On my way in, on my way out for lunch, on my way back from lunch, and on my way out from work.  If I took any other trips, I would see him then too.  Most of the time he was lucid, but a few times a week, he would be screeching, struggling to stand in one place — perhaps struggling to stand at all.  One night a coworker and I were leaving the office when we found him curled up like a dead cockroach on the ground, blocking us from leaving the office.  He did not know we were trying to get out, even when we shoved him aside with the door.  It was the first night I had worked there that he had not told me, “Goodnight.”  Before I fell asleep that night, I stared at my ceiling, wondering what happened to him.  Does he even eat?  I eventually fell asleep to the dull sound of a rattling AC unit.

            The next day, while passing him on my way to midafternoon coffee, I stopped more abruptly than I do when I’ve realized I am not going to make the yellow light.  I was not going to go any further without him. 

His name was Morgan.  Upon seeing him from a closer angle, I didn’t think he was necessarily a crackhead, mostly because of the crusty scabs that were erupting out of his face and his two missing teeth.  He rumbled on about the flowers outside the building and how the building manager should really be watering them.  He told me about his colon cancer and the struggle to get the chemotherapy he needs if he will survive.  His birthday was coming up too (he told me how much he missed his parents who had died in 2004 and 2007).  He sputtered and coughed and hobbled down the street.  He was turning 64 in June.  He hacked and wheezed.  He wanted me and my coworker, Chris, to come to his birthday party.  Morgan ordered twelve donuts, six chocolate and six vanilla for him and his new young friend.  The cashier did not find him funny.  He insisted that I ate the donuts with him.  Every head in the room was magnetized to my direction.  I didn’t understand what was so worth watching about us being there.  The cashier was stiff and wouldn’t make eye contact with me, even when I paid!  I was surprised. You can’t really smell him if you’re more than five feet away from him, and Morgan was too busy picking out which sugar would be best in my coffee to be bothering the cashier.  No one appreciated that he found the perfect one like I did. 

In the ensuing months, I found myself sharing more meals with Morgan.  I made sure he had a water bottle every day.  I bought four one-gallon jugs and we started watering the plants outside.  Chris and I sang “Happy Birthday” with him as loud as we could in June.  Morgan helped me pick out a birthday card for a coworker, and on her birthday, I made sure he got to try one of the red velvet cupcakes I had made for her.  Every night, he told me to drive home safely.  He told me I’m the only family he has.  Every now and then, he will ask for a few dollars to help get him through chemo.  I found it hard to believe that his chemo was cheap enough to be covered by street money. 

One day Chris and I were talking with Morgan when a kind man approached us to give Morgan some help with his chemo.   Morgan reached out his knobby hand and gratefully accepted the five-dollar bill.  Moments after pocketing the money, he told us he had to go to chemo.  I stood there; my shoes glued to the pavement.  I watched him limp off around the corner of our block with a skip in his step.  There were a few days that I’ve spent in the office that don’t run together, but like Usain Bolt crossing a finish line, that day passed all others in my mind.  Chris and I stood in silence a few moments after Morgan’s hunched back had disappeared.  When we went back into the office, less than an hour later, I heard him outside our window, two stories down, yelling the same dull note for minutes at a time.  When I left to go home from work, he was gone. 

Morgan’s cancer weighed on my mind.  It was ironic to me that his possible scam bothered me so much.  After all, shouldn’t I, the one who works at a criminal defense firm, be able to give someone who was so good to me the benefit of the doubt? How many times had I shook the hand of a kingpin that I had personally helped get off?  Maybe my blind eye is more readily available to someone whose potential crimes paid the bills.  Nonetheless, I knew what I saw that day, and despite my heart resting heavily at the bottom of my navel, I decided to push my questions aside. 

I began to find myself playing the “If I had the money…” game.  I’d drive to work feeling better about things, saying to myself, “If I had the money, I would pay for Morgan to go to rehab.  If I had the money, I’d offer Morgan a place to stay.  If I had the money, I’d eat every day with Morgan.  If I had the money…”  I knew deep down that the day I did have the money, Morgan will be at least 103 years old.  

I continued to water the flowers.  I didn’t know why.  The longer I knew Morgan and the more I interacted with him, the more I wondered if it was a good idea.  Every time I made my way down from the second floor of our office with two one-gallon jugs, I thought about Morgan’s cancer and his chemo and the day he told me I’m the reason he fights.  I felt like one of those white girls who go to Liberia to help underprivileged children just to clog Instagram and Facebook with that same photo of her bleached smile as they proudly stands next to children who will still die of starvation.  I’ve become haunted by those girls. Are they wasting their time trying to help those kids?  Why do they post that photo everywhere?  Are they stupid enough to be proud of the “work” they done, or do they know the tragic reality and just want compliments? 

Maybe they do know the truth because they saw it on that trip, and perhaps they post it because if they do, they can prove to themselves and all their friends that that day that they were smiling with those kids really did happen, and things were good. 

I might’ve not had a photo, but I clung onto the moments I shared with Morgan when he is lucid.  He gave me advice some wouldn’t consider valuable.  I wondered who he was when he was younger. I wondered who he was before his parents died.  How did he end up living outside a building on North Charles Street in Baltimore City?  Does he really have cancer?  Despite the burn in my chest to ask, I never did and never will.  I understand the value in not knowing. 

Now it’s September, I will walk into work and see Morgan hanging out around the building.  He stands proudly in front of the flowerpots which are bubbling over with life now. Inside the office, people are tapping keyboards, clicking pens, and hurrying angry clients off the phone.  The office sounds like shuffling papers and Xerox machines.  I have voicemails to check and an overgrowing pile of overdue tasks to complete.  My boss said he doesn’t want anything to do with whatever I’m doing with the homeless guy outside.  Any angry client lingers just around the corner.  Chris will go file a complaint with the court.  We all come together at 4 on Mondays for a staff meeting.  We can hear the cars in the city honking as early as 11 AM.  The air conditioner rattles louder than ever as Morgan makes his way down the city corner with a couple of dollars in hand.  He is soon to be gone to the world. 

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