For a few months in 2011, I had a regular customer named Chris.
Chris was an interesting guy, an unusual guy, and a sometimes pathetic guy. A veteran of the first Iraq war, Chris reminded me of that character on The Simpsons. You know the one, the surly Army Surplus store owner with a missing arm. Chris had all of his limbs, but in all other respects, they were the same. Hell, they even looked eerily alike.
As a veteran, Chris drew some money from the military. It was a small amount of money, but it was enough to allow him to live a life that most suburban white 20-somethings romanticize in Tarantino movies. If only life were a Tarantino movie.
You see, Chris had a drug problem, a booze problem, and a woman problem. The problem was that he liked all of these things, to the exclusion of everything else. Chris had no set home. Instead, he set up residence in one seedy SoDo motel after another. It was more a matter of convenience than comfort, as this is where many of Seattle’s low-level drug dealers and prostitutes also live.
To get from one motel to another, and to get from the bar back to the motel, Chris needed a chauffeur. He had already been through 20, maybe 30 cab drivers, all of whom quickly dropped him. I happened to be a shot in the dark as he flagged me down in front of the SoDo Sears, carrying a 32″ TV like an ant carries a crumb twice its size.
He was proud of his purchase. “I spent two weeks researching TVs, and this is the best one”, he told me, “this one has something called High Definition.”
He explained that the TV was a gift for his brother. His brother on Beacon Hill who had long ago disowned him, but whom he still adored for some reason I still don’t understand.
When I dropped Chris off, he asked for my card. This was the beginning of an unusual relationship.
The next day Chris called me. I picked him up from a bar, made a stop at one seedy motel, then took him to the seedy motel in which he lived in for the week. This repeated the next day, and the next, and the next. Obviously, I knew what was going on.
Now, when I know that people are using/buying drugs, I usually cut them off and refuse to take them anywhere. Not for moral reasons, mind you, but for legal ones. If I get stopped, and someone is in possession of something illegal, it will cause problems for me. For this reason, I try to play it safe. I couldn’t bring myself to cut off Chris, though. Chris was a bit older than myself, but much of his story was familiar. Physically abused before being abandoned by his family, Chris learned early on how to fend for himself, and to trust no one. Having an obviously high IQ, he had high aspirations, but not being the son of a wealthy man, or any man for that matter, he realized that his aspirations would have to wait for a stint in the military.
Chris fought the good fight, I guess, but when he came home, he was a changed man.
“PTSD is what they called it”, he told me, “then they gave me all of these pills which either don’t help or made it worse. I once went two weeks without sleep because every time I closed my eyes I saw the face of this dying kid. It was worth it, though”, he said as he pointed to a large SUV in front of us, “I saved that guy from having to pay $6 for a gallon for gas.”
Chris held a couple of jobs, but struggled to maintain them. Eventually, he started his own business cleaning houses.
“I had a business cleaning rich people’s houses over on the Eastside”, he told me, “man, you wouldn’t believe how much rich people will pay you to clean their houses! It’s like printing money.”
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be a long term gig. “When you can’t sleep and you’re constantly depressed, you can maintain a sense of normalcy for awhile. Days, weeks, maybe months. Eventually, it catches up with you, though”, he said.
Falling into a deep depression and offered still more pills by the VA, pills which only seemed to exacerbate his condition, Chris gave up. On the military, on a job, on society, and most of all, on himself.
“Have you seen that movie Leaving Las Vegas?”, he once asked me, “Well, I guess I’m Seattle’s version of that.”
Chris had a plan, you see, and that plan was to stop pursuing other people’s ideas of happiness. To stop doing what people said was best for him. “I’ll never be happy taking their pills, living their lives”, he said “the only thing that makes me happy is women, booze, and drugs. I want to do what makes me happy. Even if it kills me.”
And so he did. He lived his life.
Almost every day, my phone would ring. Chris didn’t have a cellphone, so the calls would come from a dive bar in Pioneer Square, a rundown motel near the airport, or one of the last few payphones lining Aurora Avenue.
Sometimes Chris would be lucid, sometimes his words would be slurred, and sometimes, the person calling me would be an angry bartender. Chris kept a stack of my cards at all times, and before he started drinking, he would hand the bartender one of the cards and say “call this guy when you throw me out”.
And they always did.
Throw him out.
And call me.
No matter his mental state, every time Chris jumped in the car, he ordered the radio tuned to KEXP. Oh, how he loved KEXP. “That radio station is the only real friend I have in this town”, he told me.
Almost every day, I had lengthy conversations with Chris. Politics, religion, the deep-bore tunnel under Downtown Seattle, anything and everything. Chris was smart. Perhaps even brilliant. He knew a lot of things about a lot of things, and few of his opinions were clouded by dogma, allegiance, political correctness, or pretense.
Chris took me to all of Seattle’s finer shitholes, but his favorite by far was a small stretch of Marginal Way just north of the airport. We would pull up late at night, and the tricks, johns, pimps, and dealers would give me the evil eye.
“Don’t fuck with this guy!”, he would warn them, and his admonitions seemed to carry some weight, for they never did.
When the calendar turned from 2011 to 2012, I realized that it had been some time since Chris had called me, or that someone had called me on his inebriated behalf. Had it been one week? Two? I couldn’t remember. All I knew is that it had been much longer than usual.
I began to worry.
My concern had nothing to do with greed. To be honest, Chris was a lousy fare. When he was able to tip, he tipped me well, often double what he owed me. Other times, he didn’t pay me at all, though I never pushed the issue. All things considered, I may have broken even, though by this time, it wasn’t really about the money. I realized that I needed Chris as much as he needed me. I needed one person in the world more cynical than I. A person who didn’t criticize me for my own dark outlook on life. A person who, if anything, considered me to be an optimist.
As January passed, I began to get more worried. No sightings, no calls, something was amiss.
This morning, on my way back from SeaTac, I decided to make a detour. I got off on Swift, worked my way over to Corson, and then over to Marginal Way. I cruised past seedy motels that I had tidily filed in my mental rolodex, and after no more than 10 minutes, I spotted a working girl. She was a black girl with long legs and a short skirt whom I had come to know over the months due to Chris’ rather ‘eclectic’ taste in women.
Asian hookers were satisfying, but untrustworthy, he had informed me. “Never fall asleep with an Asian hooker!”, he once admonished me as if I were his student in ‘John 101′ … “If you do, when you wake up, all of your shit’ll be gone!”
White girls? Well, they all have daddy issues. “More often than not, I can’t even fuck them”, he told me, “They tell me some story about their stepfather, end up crying, and I just pay them to leave. Every, single one of those girls was molested, and I don’t want that on my conscience.”
This left black girls, Chris’ preferred companion. “They don’t make me feel like a scumbag”, he said, “they’re just in it for the money and they don’t seem to have all the mental hangups about it. I fuck them, I pay them, they leave. If you ever get a hooker, do yourself a favor and get a black girl!”
And so, on this day, a day on which I was looking for Chris, it seemed somehow appropriate that the first person I encountered on Marginal Way was one of his favorites. A girl who wouldn’t do oral, he told me, but had the finest vagai in all of the Pacific Northwest. A girl who was far too underdressed to be comfortable on this rainy Seattle morning.
“What, no raincoat?”, I asked while rolling down my window, “Isn’t that every man’s fantasy, a chick in a raincoat? I know it’s mine.”
“Haha, so how you doin’, I haven’t seen you in awhile”, she said as she approached the passenger window.
“I’m looking for Chris”, I said, “I haven’t seen him in a few weeks.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, the look on her face told me all that I needed to know. I knew that I would not find Chris on this, or any other morning.
“You don’t know?”, she said, pausing for what seemed like an eternity before continuing, “……….. Chris passed away ……. right before Christmas …… he OD’ed, honey.”
As I drove north on 4th Avenue, eyeballing the rain-obscured skyline three miles distant. I reached down, turned on the stereo, and pressed preset #1. KEXP was playing the Sex Pistols. Heh, the Sex Pistols. I could just imagine Chris saying something completely inappropriate right about now. “Rex, take me to the Munson, I need a little sex for my pistol. Keep goin’ even if you hit a nun cause I got 15 minutes until it starts shootin’ blanks.”
Beat the clock. It was a frequent game. There were no erections to be had once the buzz from the cocaine wore off.
When I got to the La Hacienda sign at Lucille St., my efforts to hold in tears failed. I pulled over, composed myself, turned up the radio, then drove on. Such is life on the streets for Seattle’s anonymous misfits.
Rest in Peace, Chris.
The grimy streets of SoDo won’t be the same without you.