The back door of my apartment opens into an alleyway covered in murals. On weekends, people flock to this urban tourist attraction, cameras at the ready. They photograph one another posing against the vivid colors, hoping to get an ‘original’ shot of the graffiti so many others have already developed. By Monday, litter is the only sign of the recent influx of visitors. Discarded spray paint cans, beer bottles, and snack food wrappers move like tumbleweeds down the street they can’t seem to escape. The acidic scent of urine attracts a plague-worthy number of flies that scatter in black clouds when footsteps draw near. Prostitutes offer sexual favors in exchange for cigarettes at six AM. The homeless situate their carts against the colorful garages, looking to the alley as a haven from wind-chill. Addicts bring their needles, their baggies, their lighters, and wait for the walls come alive.
At the northern mouth of the alley lies a police station. But the cops don’t come here. This is the city’s forgotten place. People come to see the street art, leaving before they catch a glimpse of the real street life. It’s not something you can photograph with friends, smiling. It’s not vibrant like the walls.
I keep my dog on a tight leash as we leave the security of the gated driveway, exiting into the middle portion of the alleyway. He’s easily distracted from doing his business by the lurking humans—and I’ve devoted the length of a filtered cigarette for him to take a shit. My dog leads the way up the narrow street, pausing to lift his leg on weeds that sprout from the cracks in the uneven concrete. I look blankly at the murals I’ve seen on over a thousand dog walks. The paint is peeling. The artwork has been tagged with markers. I’m not convinced of its beauty.
My dog tows me past a sheltered driveway that had been hiding a man from view. A tall African American man emerges, stepping toward me, clothed in all black, his hair in braids that drape over his shoulders. “Pray for me,” he says, pleading, the intensity of words mirroring the torment in his wide eyes. Before I can respond, he explains, “I relapsed yesterday. I need some good prayers.”
I nod, a little awestruck by his honesty. It’s a strange favor to request from a stranger. “All-right,” I agreed, “I will.”
At my words, he almost cowers in the corner, up against the two joining walls, crumbling into a ball. I don’t know what else to say. Or do. The moment’s somehow suspended. My dog tugs at the leash, pulling me forward, and out of the conversation.
A few yards later, the dog is circling, and I’m pulling the plastic bag from my pocket. I’m sorting through my past, back to ten years ago, when I was hooked on a myriad of substances. I’m fairly sure it takes more than a prayer to come clean. But a prayer is something I could give. Even if I haven’t talked to God in awhile.
I’m trying to recall the words to the ‘Serenity’ prayer while pulling the plastic bag over my right hand but all I can come up with is the hardcore rendition by ‘Blood for Blood.’ I’m remembering the zombie-like gatherings at AA meetings in the foothills that I attended when I was fifteen. Maybe this situation calls for a stronger prayer. “My name’s Victor, by the way,” the man’s voice calls out to me. As though this would be a sensible thing to tell God. As if he knew I was going to follow through.
As I’m picking up shit out of the gutter, I’m writing a letter to God in my head.
Dear God. Please grant Victor the strength he needs to resist temptation. Fill him resilience to fight his addiction. Give him unwavering faith to withstand challenges on his path to recovery.
I turn back down the alley, toward my garage door, baggie in one hand, leash in the other. I spot Victor, his back turned, shielding his face from sight. I want to tell him that I prayed for him. I want to wish him luck, as if luck had anything to do with it. It feels like I should say something but I don’t.
Victor’s hands are occupied in front of him, the dark skin on one of his arms exposed. From this angle, I can only catch a glimpse of his face, grey with hurt. I see an eye roll up into the back of his head, all white and dreamy, as a lone tear streams down his face, wiping a streak of grime away. I come closer, considering what I can say to comfort him. Ethereal light refracts over the mural beside him. There’s a needle in his arm and a bead of saliva forming in the corner of his mouth.
I step away, telling myself it’s his choice. His life. God’s problem. It feels almost shameful as I open my garage door and toss the shit into the blue garbage bin. My dog wags his tail happily in the sun as I think about Victor over in the shadows.
Megan Enright edits and publishes Tough Times Magazine, your guide for living the high life at no cost in San Francisco
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