I was once married to a man named Oscar Johnson. Sometime in the early 60s we took a bus to Reno carrying a packed lunch including ten bags of Mexican yellow heroin and a bottle of black draught laxative. That trip to Reno would have happened in the month of May. I know that because all my weddings occurred in May — not by design or reason, simply by happenstance. I wonder now if that was the common thread. I never had any success at marriage. Maybe it was a bad luck month for me.
I still think about Oscar. The way you do think of people who just suddenly vanish from your life. I wonder if there are those people out in the city of Oakland who still see his dark face and luminous eyes as I do.
Oscar was born in New Orleans, in 1931 or ’32. By the time he was twelve or so his family moved to Oakland. By that time I was just two years old, way up on the res in Northern Montana. He was Oakland street tough alright, but his soul was New Orleans pure blue jazz and poetry.
I met him in San Francisco — an upstairs flat at 2 Cadell Place off Grant in North Beach. That street is now called by another name. The new name honors one of the great poets of our generation. Mine and Oscar’s, that is.
I was waiting, as all speed freaks are waiting. Just waiting — all life suspended, a wait that will suddenly end with the delivery of drugs only to begin again a split second later. I was waiting for some speed. Or so I hoped, having given my money to a stranger some two days earlier. I thought he would surely be coming soon. He had only gone down the street. But time is different here. Compressed, then suddenly extended only to compress again.
Instead of the man with the dope, here comes a tall skinny black dude. He had close clipped hair under a beret. He wore a long black trench coat that could not hide his thin long neck. He looked like he was born to be skinny. He looked like the Watusi tribesmen I saw on TV. He looked African. He had the longest hands. Like a musician. And he wanted to know right off what I was doing there.
That seemed an astounding question to me since he was the intruder. “Nothing. What are YOU doing here?”
“Looking for my bro. He lives here.”
He told me a name I never heard before. But in fact I really did not know who lived there so that was not a surprise to me. People didn’t always have names back then. So I told him that no one had been here at all to live or even knock on the door in quite a while. He studied me for a minute.
Then he said, “I want to ask you a question.” He wrapped his long fingers around my thin arms and looked closely at me and I could see his broken frozen heart through the glass wall of his eyes. I just mumbled. He said, “This is the straight truth. I got out prison today. I need an old lady. I have some bad shit for white old ladies. But if you want to be my old lady I will try to overlook all that. What do you think?”
I saw right away he was a way bit smarter than anybody I was hanging with. I liked the sound of his well-formed English. I liked the simple honesty I saw in him. I liked that when he held me like that close by the arms I came only barely to his chest. I liked his clean smell. I liked his shiny black skin. His eyes were not lying eyes. And then the bottom line was: what else did I have to do? I knew my wait was futile. I had forgotten by now where it was I actually lived. Oh yeah, the No Name Hotel on Stockton below Broadway. But then I remembered again I didn’t really live there because I heard it had burned awhile back. So of course I said, “Okay. I don’t care.”
He had a pocket full of meth so we shot that up to celebrate our holy union. Then off we went across the Bay to stay in a big high rise hotel in downtown Oakland until all his cash was used up. So that was our honeymoon; that was when we said so many, many things to each other. We fell in love in those two months. Or something like it anyway. We talked about his hatred of whites, his feeling he was betraying his black sisters by taking a white old lady, shot up endless papers of crystal. It was the perfect life.
He went places and came back, never told me where or what he was doing. I just waited for him. I was used to waiting by that time. At the end of the honeymoon he came back with something different. He was always moving fast, always had some kind of mysterious purpose. What that purpose was I did not know
The East Bay hot sun poured through the windows.
Time was about to suspend itself.
Unlike methedrine's constant compression-extension-compression flow, this drug just took out time altogether, no longer a factor. Day or night had no bearing. He had a balloon in his pocket. He always got his vein, never missed. I never asked him what it was. I was his old lady. I never was an old lady before, but I knew already from observation of girls that got to be somebody's old lady that you don’t ask questions. Because if you do most likely one of two things happen. If you’re lucky you get stonewalled — unlucky you might get smacked. An old lady just does what she is told. They do not exist unless the old man wants them to. So I let him shoot me up knowing it was not crystal.
I threw up. Violently. Everybody does that the first time. Then I became still. My eyelids slipped down over my eyes. At first I fought it. Trying to stay focused, but then I let go and drifted. I heard myself ask him what this was. But I already knew. It was home. It was where I was always going all those years. It was filling up all the empty spaces in my head with warmth I never knew before; it was delivering me from all pain. It was a soft fluff of cloud in blue sky where I finally lay down in peace.
It was smack.
For three days we lay on the bed, shooting heaven in our veins and dreaming our separate dreams. I had many dreams that were powerful and full of strange things but I remember only the one that came back again and again. In this dream I was walking up a mountain. There is no sound. The sky is clear blue. The earth blackened. Scorched. No living thing. The trees are burned to tiny black sticks. No birds. Nothing. At last I come to the top of the mountain. There I see two things. A lake with still clear sparking blue water. And a tree, still burning. A great tree popping and roaring, no sound. The tree spoke. He said, “Don’t drink this water. For if you do it will burn through your veins and you will explode into fire. You will be burned into the mind of god forever. You will come the voice of god, the tongue of the serpent, the burning tree.”
But I was thirsty from the walk up the steep mountain in the hot sun. So I dipped my hands into the lake so I could drink. Then my hands were burning like fire. I jerked them out screaming and expecting only raw bones. I saw my hands were still hands but dripping in a dark cold blood.
Then Oscar had no more smack and we were sick. I wanted that shit more than anything. I hated the grinding sun, the harsh sounds of cars, the screeching of the children playing in the streets. He went out as he always did and came back and suddenly he said, “Pack your things we’re going back across the Bay.”
The Fillmore District, San Francisco
John Kennedy was already dead. Martin Luther King was still alive. It was the time of Malcolm X. Mohammed Speaks was hawked on every street in the Fillmore. I mean every corner, at Ellis, at Eddy at Turk and McAllister. I can see Fillmore Street right now, just like it was. I would never have guessed back then that in a few more years it would be bulldozed. Every last building knocked down to raw dirt. “Urban renewal,” they called it. How could that happen? It was a city all its own. A black city inside a white city. A great city. How many people lived in the Fillmore then? A hundred thousand? All of them shopping right there at the heart of it. All of this was strange and exciting to me. Like going to another country. The smell of food. All faces black. No white faces. No white people. Gilmore's Soul food. The Muslim bakeries, all grainy and whole wheat. People hanging out all the time on the streets — jiving, slapping hands, laughing, and talking way loud. These people were not driving to the supermarket, shopping grimly and running back to the car, hating each other on the freeway, going home to an isolated rambler in subdivisions off the interstate where nobody knew their neighbor or talked to anyone. In the Fillmore, I saw what I had been missing all my life. A big, happy community. Neighbors talking to neighbors. An actual neighborhood. Like you hear about in New York City.
It was the beginning of a revolution. It was when Rap Brown and Eldridge Cleaver were just listening and thinking about what Mohammed did speak and Martin Luther King was saying he Had a Dream and starting a great awakening in the land that would rumble through our lives for years. And the Panthers were getting ready to start a war.
We moved into the Manor Plaza Hotel. It was the best hotel in the Fillmore. Below it was Gilmore's Soul Food and it was good food, even for a junky like me. The rooms had carpets and bathrooms. And somebody cleaned them every day.
Right after we got there Oscar told me that he and his partner were going to rob some place. I don t know why he told me that. Then I wished he had not told me like all the other times. Because those others times I never dreamed it might be something like that. I wasn’t worried. But now I was more than worried. I was terrified. I was a young girl from small town America. Robbing was something you saw on TV, and didn’t the bad guys always get caught? Oscar and his partner were gone a long time. I listened to the radio. I knew the cops would shoot him. I knew he would never come back. I sat shaking and huddled up over the news until he came through the door, tall and beautiful, with a bag full of dope. Now I knew the money didn’t come from just anywhere. Strings attached — there were strings attached.
I soon found nobody called him Oscar but me. They called him O. O had a gun. Always had a gun. He had a small gun in a shoulder holster. It was a good gun, though. It was small but heavy. I think it was German made. I would not touch it. He laughed about that. I have always been afraid of touching guns. Like it might just go off suddenly if I touched it. Maybe from growing up in the West. Maybe somebody told me not ever to touch a gun. I could be killed or kill someone else by accident. We were raised like that. Men all had guns and rifles. For hunting deer, for killing stray dogs and cats. And in case the government went too far to the left. Every man had a right to bear arms, I was told. Of course that would not include African Americans; that goes without saying. But the kids were told never ever to touch the guns. I never have.
Oscar was at home in the Fillmore. We went out for barbecue ribs, walking through the jumble of people, this tall crazy black man and a tiny little almost white girl. We got hard stares from the Black Muslims, and when we went over to North Beach we got hard stares from the square white men. But we were okay with the hipsters. Because Oscar was a jazzman. Oscar was an educated man. Self-taught, but well-taught. He knew his black history. He knew all kinds of music. He could talk philosophy in a coffeehouse all night and beat anybody at chess. He could live in the white man’s world. But he never wanted to. He only went over to the Beach to amuse me. He wanted to be in the Fillmore. That was his turf.
Even though he came up in the streets of Oakland he only went over there to see his mom or take care of business. There is something about Oakland where Oakland can never ever bring off a hip scene. Oh, I’ve been told back in the 40s when it was called Oaktown it was a happening place. Card rooms full of shiny black hustlers, cool bars with live blues bands. One of the only places in the country where blues bands could really get their foot in the door. All black clubs with dancing all night long. A few white hipsters wandered in and got blown away by the music and all that dancing and loud talking, jive talking black men and women. They never saw anything like it. After awhile in the 60s the white man tried to steal that music for his own, but I never heard any white man sing the blues like Mississippi John Hurt or Howling Wolf or B.B. King and so many others whose names I have lost over the years.
The Oakland Oscar went home to so reluctantly was a dead zone. Empty streets. Everybody in cars afraid to get shot. It was chilly even on hot days. It felt like at any minute some ugly scene would come down. And often enough that is exactly what happened. Because a great rage was boiling up in Oakland. If you want to know the truth it is still there and still building to this day. Like Mono Lake — little temblors with the big one is on the way. Just when is the only question.
But the Fillmore was a cool place. Ugly sometimes. Cruel sometimes, but still it was San Francisco, the greatest city in the world and the Fillmore was part of it. A crucial part of it in my opinion. Maybe that’s why it is gone. They couldn’t stand seeing all those black people having so much fun.
We went to a jazz club most nights. Over on Turk just below Fillmore. There were mostly jams, local musicians like O climbing up onto a little stage. Whoever might be there just got up and played their hearts out. Maybe they never met each other before, but it was improvisational jazz and it worked. That building was painted all blue on the outside and it had mural of jazzmen playing music. Miles Davis. Miles always looking up his partner O when he came to town. He sat in with the boys and played a set. Scored a bag or two from my Old Man. I was proud of that. Dealer to the stars. Miles had a scratchy kind of voice so I always knew him when he called. “I’m looking for O,” he said. “He owe me something.” Then he would crackle out a broken laugh.
Our habits got bigger. O tried to teach me how to be a dope fiend. We needed more money, he said. Did I think he was a sugar daddy? Did I think dope grew on apple trees, you just pick it?
First thing he tried to turn me out. Sent me out alone. That was his first mistake. It all ended in nothing except I came home beat up, robbed, raped and nearly killed by a cultured young businessman with a Ted Bundy smile. Oscar was enraged. He went up to Broadway four nights straight to shoot that white bastard. I waited crying and praying, God don’t let him find that man. God don’t let him go to death row for murder. Lucky the honky creep did not make an appearance that week on Broadway or he would have been wishing he had finished the job he started. Because Oscar would have finished him for good. Oscar could shoot a gun. He was trained by the Marines.
He never sent me out again.
Next he tried to teach me to pass forged checks. He and his partner stole some payroll checks and some I.D. and had me practice signing the woman's name. Patricia was her first name. The picture did not look at all like me, but they said it didn’t matter; she was a white woman. All white people look alike.
Oscar's partner’s name was Mexico. He was a short, light skinned black man with freckles across the bridge of his nose. He came up with O on the streets of Oakland and San Leandro. They were tight.
They drove me out to Palo Alto to a supermarket. Sent me in to cash a payroll check. Oscar was standing off to the side staring hard at me. I thought sure someone would see that. My hand shook so bad I could not do her signature. It took everything I had to hold the pen. I gave them her driver’s license. And I guess O and Mexico were right. She was white, but she never looked at the picture at all, just wrote down the number. I walked out with 800 bucks. From then on I felt haunted. Like any minute the long arm of the law would snatch me up off the street. I tried to make my way along doorways and stayed away from curbs where the long arm might get a hold of me easier.
After that he gave up. He explained to me this was the reason he knew better than to take a white old lady because white girls don’t know anything. No street smarts. Spoiled by the easy life, thinking a man is supposed to take care of them. I explained timidly that I was only a half white. My birth mother was an Indian woman in Montana. He laughed long and loud. When he finally stopped laughing he took my hand and looked straight into my eyes and said, “Now I know why the white man beat the Injuns. Because you are one dumb Indian girl!” I had to laugh myself.
And that car — the one we took to Palo Alto — that car was stolen by Oscar. He never told me that, but by now I knew everything involved with Oscar had strings attached. Money does not just grow on trees. Cars that have to be hot-wired are likely not bought on a lot. Then one day we had no more car. Oscar was driving over on Montgomery Street at noon. A cop tried to stop him. He jumped out and pulled off a couple of shoots in the air. The lunch hour crowds stampeded. Oscar joined in the stampede and ducked away into the alley. I asked him, Was he crazy or what, shooting in a crowd like that? He said, “If you see one black guy running down the street that black guy going to get busted. But if you see thousands of all colored people running at once, how you going to know which one is running from the cops?”
My old man was smart all right. If it weren’t for junk he might have been… But that is a stupid way of thinking. There was junk. And there were all those other demons that drove him before junk.
It was almost over now. One day, sitting by the Bay on the Embarcadero, Oscar suddenly just told me he wished he could just jump in the Bay and die. I knew then he was tired. Heroin makes you like that. Not the drug, but things you have to do to keep on getting it. And the never knowing if the next shot you take is a hot shot (pure heroin) because somebody decided you were a snitch. Happened all the time. O.D., the death report would say. It was murder, really. Because when you shot cut heroin but then somebody slips you a pure bag you are dead as soon as it hits your vein. That is plain murder. Or getting shot by a cop when you were out robbing, which I knew Oscar did — not everyday because his dope business was pretty good, but when things dried up. When hard times came. Or just plain getting busted. Because that was coming. And for some people like Oscar it really was a relief. I saw that in him when it eventually came down a few weeks later.
It was such a stupid thing. He tried to climb through a transom at a record store on Divisadero to steal records. He got caught half way in half way out. His skinny butt and long legs hanging out. Somebody called the cops. So he went to jail. Turned out he had missed all his meetings with his parole officer ever since he knew he could not pass a piss test. So they already had a warrant out for him for parole violation. He was going back to Norco. It was called the revolving door. Once you got sent to Norco you were caught in the revolving door. You went in. You went out. You violated. You went back in, and it never would ever end. Not like doing straight time. It was supposed to be for junkies, a special treatment prison. But still it was prison, no treatment really. However, its special status as drug treatment made it possible for them it continue parole indefinitely. You could never finish your sentence. You never would stop going back until you stopped shooting dope. And nobody at that time ever heard of a dope fiend doing that.
There was only one place I heard about on the radio where they had actually got some junkies off dope. And the state hated them. If a parolee went there they got busted for breaking parole by consorting with other dope fiends. No matter that these dope fiends were now clean and happy people. Why the state hated this place, Synanon, I would learn one day in the not-too-distant future. But at that time there was no hope for dope fiend parolees but Synanon, except the state would punish them if they went there. In those days once a junkie always a junky. That’s the way everybody thought. Only way out was in a pine box.
I went to the jail to see Oscar. He told me where he had money stashed. He said some old friends of his were coming over from Oakland to help me bail him out. He knew I had no idea what to do or how to do it. They showed up all right. A couple of tough looking black women with made up faces, tight skirts and conked hair. They brought their old men who didn’t look any better than they did. They told me they could see they had to get me straight because I was looking pretty sick. Oscar told me not to give them any money but just have them take me down to the bondsman and show me how to do it. No matter what, he told me, don’t hand them the money. But then I was sick. I felt they cared about me. I gave her fifty dollars and stashed the rest. They got some dope and shot me up first because I was sick and they were such nice people — I thought. That was it. I was OD’d. They thought I would never wake up. I am sure of it. But a day later I came around, stiff and cold and heaving my guts out. The money was gone. Oscar's clothes were gone. His most prized possession was his record collection. That was gone too.
He was mad. Sick himself, in jail, kicking a big habit. No money. No cigarettes, no dope, and a stupid white Indian old lady who could not even follow simple instructions. He told me where to find another one of his stashes, and this time I went downtown and bailed him out on my own. If he wasn’t so sick I knew he would have beat me to death that day. But he was sick as a dog. And I saw what was coming to me one day.
So now it was a waiting game. We went to Reno and got married. We still went down to the club at night. He still talked about the revolution coming. The white people’s houses burned to hell. The Black Panthers were coming up now and he turned quickly from the peaceful separation of Mohammed to the war talk of the Panthers. But something was gone from Oscar. Sometimes I would find him suddenly just vacant. In the middle of a sentence he would stop as if his words had suddenly flown like starlings from his mind. His eyes were the same as what I saw the first day: A looking glass where I could see his fractured soul burning and twisting inside.
I could do nothing.
Now we knew we had only a short time. The day before he was to go back we shot up our morning fix and he went off to the streets to do mysterious Oscar things, many of these things I never knew about. He never told everything he knew. Like any old time dope fiend, he held his cards real close to his chest. If you don’t learn that one you get dead and never get to be an old time dope fiend like him.
And that was the last time I ever shot dope, and the very last time I ever did see Oscar Johnson.
I was in Synanon down on Commercial on the second floor of a big warehouse by 11 that morning. I was on the kicking couch in the middle of the huge community room with a bucket to throw up in and a blanket. I was a newcomer, a raw dope fiend. I would kick my habit right there where everybody could see it so they would not forget easily what it was like. My marriage ended. My life as a heroin addict ended. Six months. I was only six months from 2 Cadell Place.
Every once in a while over the years I run my fingers through the names of all the Johnsons in Oakland looking for his name. Once I called every one of them to ask if they knew him. No one did.
About ten years ago by chance I ran into the man who had been his parole officer when he came out of Norco. He said Oscar made several appointments with him and was clean, but then he just disappeared. The parole officer tried to find him, but couldn’t. He waited to see if Oscar's name came up in the legal system again, but it never did. He just disappeared from the system. Nobody knew.
I always do miss my beautiful shining Watusi man. Maybe he is clean now, leading the good life like me. (Good life?) Or maybe he is down there in the Bay where he said he wanted to go, playing sad riffs down deep where only the fish can hear him. Or maybe he's sitting in a cafe in North Beach sipping his espresso. Maybe his long black raincoat is draped over the chair, his black beret is pushed back on his high domed skull, and he's looking out the window thinking of his long lost little white Indian girl, wondering where she might be today.