I balanced a cup of strong coffee on the dashboard of my patrol car and watched the transgender woman I knew as “Misty” leave the free medical clinic in the Tenderloin. She walked with a dignified, stiff posture that I admired considering she was 6’2” and wearing a flower print dress with little puffy sleeves that was surely meant for a tiny housewife.
Misty worked the streets of the Tenderloin as a prostitute to support her heroin habit. She and I had come to know each other in the strangled, cautious way that cops and their steady customers come to know each other. There was an odd sweetness about her, no meanness or anger and she loved to laugh. One time on the way to the station, I told her about how in fifth grade I had dressed up in my brother’s suit to play Ed Sullivan in a talent show. I told her that I wasn’t great at imitating Ed but I sure loved wearing that suit. We laughed together and it reminded me of how much I liked her.
Misty had AIDS. It was 1987 and the virus was ravaging the male homosexual population and drug users. More and more of the clientele at the clinic were showing up with ghastly purple lesions on their arms and faces. Once, when I arrested Misty for a dozen outstanding warrants, I commented on how much weight she had lost. She told me that the virus had given her a painfully stiff neck and excruciating headaches and that she had a hard time keeping food down. “I’m just grateful that I don’t have the lesions,” she told me, meaning that she could still work the streets. If she couldn’t work the streets, she’d have to trade the oxycodones she got at the clinic for a hit or two of heroin and she needed the oxys for her pain.
The tentacles of AIDS traveled in and out of social classes, across the boundaries of poverty and addiction and sex. It wasn’t long before it made its appearance in my own life. Ten months after testing positive, my brother’s partner John, a sweet, kind, handsome man, lay emaciated, unable to get out of bed, the painful lesions of Kaposi Sarcoma covering both of his legs. His suffering was immense yet on the day he died he spoke of plans to go hiking in Yosemite once his legs healed, so unable was he to believe that his life could end so quickly.
My brother and John had been together for ten years and for three weeks after John’s death I waited for the test results that would determine my brother’s fate. He called one rainy afternoon to tell me that he was free of the virus. I felt a deep relief, yet, as I listened to my brother’s voice I heard nothing but despair. “Everyone around me is dying,” he said. “Why not me?” Now I watched Misty walk down the street, thinner than I had ever seen her and I wondered how much time she had left before the disease shut her down completely.
Misty collected misdemeanor citations like some people collect aluminum cans. I put her name into my computer to see if she had any warrants. A compulsive shoplifter, she got caught more often than not and since she never voluntarily walked into a courtroom it was inevitable that she would end up with a stack of warrants. One day I picked her up when she had seventeen. I liked to stay on top of her warrants, making sure that I was the one who brought her in instead of a cop who might treat her with disdain. Two small warrants came up for prostitution and loitering, not enough to ruin her day and definitely not enough for me to take her in and spend an hour doing the paperwork.
As Misty left the clinic I could see that she was going “shopping,” heading towards Union Square with a folded Macy’s bag tucked up under her arm. Her thinning, rust-colored hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and underneath her dress she wore orange tights. She was only slightly off balance in the low platform heels that tended to accentuate her calf muscles in a distinctly unfeminine way. She wore orange lipstick that matched her capris and creamy make-up. Between her height and her outfits I never understood how she thought she could stroll into Macy’s without being noticed. Store security called the police the minute she walked through the door. Misty may have been good at other things, but she was not a talented thief.
I drew up alongside her in my patrol car, idling so that I could match her pace. She kept her eyes focused forward as if that would somehow make her invisible.
“Misty?” I called out in a teasing tone. “Going shopping?”
She turned towards me and we both laughed.
“Oops. I guess not,” she giggled. A quick about face and she strode off in the opposite direction. We both knew that she would walk around the block and head back to Macy’s by an alternate route. We both knew that I didn’t care.
There was an awkwardness in the way Misty walked down the street. She was one of those people that moved through the world uneasily, with a constant downward glance, and soft, imperceptible speech. She always spoke to me as if apologizing, as though her existence were an insult. It would have been okay with me if Misty told me to fuck off. At least then I would know that she had enough fight left in her to survive. I wondered if I had enough fight left in me to survive.
Three months ago, a punk who wanted to be a big shot in his gang by killing a cop, called in a bogus complaint about an abandoned car, setting me up for an ambush. As I drove up, he opened fire with a large caliber revolver, blowing out the windows of my patrol car, punching a hole through the headrest on my seat, missing my head by an inch. I came out of it unscathed, except for the fear.
I had been frightened many times in my career, but this time the fear hung on. It was like a sharp-toothed animal that bit me every time it surfaced. At first I tried to ignore it, driving around the Tenderloin believing that I was larger, braver for immersing myself in the gritty, dangerous life of these streets. I drove down dark alleys where there was no radio reception, taking on hypes in numbers, all shooting dope and angry at being disturbed. I embarrassed myself more than once by pushing past other officers, making sure I was first in the door on dangerous calls.
Then there came the times when I stopped doing anything at all. I watched a man sprint down the block with a crazed look on his sweaty face. I had worked the streets long enough to know that he was running away from something he had done. I also knew that if I tried to stop him he would fight me. I froze.
An hour later I heard dispatch put out a suspect description that exactly matched the man I saw running away. He had robbed a liquor store, slashed the storeowner across the face with a razor. Devastated and deeply ashamed, I looked at myself in my rearview mirror and hated the coward who looked back.
Lost in the aftershocks of the ambush, I felt myself struggle to come back to who I had been, the fearless, gutsy cop. It was this rawness, this desperation that ignited a curiosity in me. I began to see things differently. The rigid cop who believed in the world of black and white police work was suddenly shaken awake and I saw my own vulnerability reflected in the eyes of the people I came in contact with. I found myself ashamed of my fear but newly compassionate and for the first time since the ambush, I tentatively considered that maybe I wasn’t a coward after all, maybe I was just human.
I watched people like Misty, the addicted, the violent, the homeless, with a new and consuming fascination. I had an urgent need to understand who they were, where they came from. I began to pay attention, to listen closely, to offer a few kind words. It was effortless. I developed a reverence, a tenderness for the fact that we were all still miraculously alive.
Two hours after I halfheartedly averted Misty’s shopping trip, I spotted her among a cluster of Trans prostitutes gathered in front of a corner liquor store. They stood well apart from the two jerry-curled, street-mean heroin dealers who seemed to guard the entrance to the filthy store. Security bars covered the windows and threw the interior and its expired products into darkness. It was well known that the dealers ducked inside to do business in front of the broken Slurpee machine, the clerk looking the other way for a cut. It was a lucrative business that the girls knew not to disrupt.
There were strict rules among the prostitutes on Leavenworth Street about who worked what corners. “Real” women worked the east side of the street, Misty and her friends, the west. It was an arrangement that worked decently for everyone and eased the danger of customers not prepared for what they purchased. It only became contentious when it was discovered that the Trans prostitutes were charging more for “a little bit of everything.”
Splashed in hot pinks and purples, Misty and her friends stood on the corner telling each other stories, waving long fingernails, and laughing with big throaty howls. Tight fitting miniskirts showed off round, muscled butts and their platform style high heels and winged wigs made them oddly sexy and intimidating. They would normally be leaning into the windows of slow moving vehicles, letting their cleavage and smooth talk snare customers right and left. But today they were having too much fun to work. Stopped at a red light, I sat across the street in my patrol car and watched these bold, colorful women. I wondered what they talked about, what made them laugh, what they said to comfort each other. It was an exclusive club, their world of loud talk and wild laughter. The dues were alienation, rejection, addiction, and long hours with men whose sexual urges made them perfect stooges.
My club was made up of women cops who worked in dangerous districts like the Tenderloin. It was an impenetrable sisterhood. Like Misty and her friends, we were bound together by our shared experiences. After a few drinks, my best friend Marcy and I became bold, tough talking humorists. Feelings were to be avoided lest they eat us alive. My friends took me out for drinks after the ambush, teasing me and claiming that I had a new part in my hair. I laughed a bit too loudly, and went home feeling strangely pathetic, gripping the steering wheel tensely as reawakened veins of shame coursed through my body.
Later in the day I found Misty standing apart from her friends, her shoulders hunched, the fog of heroin making her look dazed and wobbly.
“Jesus Misty, you are fucked up,” I said, getting out of my car.
“Oh I haven’t used today Sarge, really,” she said in a slow, sloppy drawl.
“Bullshit,” I barked, hoping she didn’t fall, finding myself not wanting to touch her.
Her eyes drooped, struggled to stay open. Her head bobbed and she scratched absently at one of the sore spots on her face.
“Get off the street before some perv picks you up and beats the shit out of you for wasting his money.”
“Okay, but come on, Sarge, you gotta let me keep my dates.”
“You’re too fucked up to work. Get off the street or I’ll book your ass for being under the influence,” I warned, trying not to sound disgusted.
Two days later I walked into the security office at Neiman Marcus where Misty sat handcuffed to a rolling office chair.
“Misty, Misty, I can’t cite you out because you just got cited at Macy’s yesterday,” I said, exasperated. “Now I have to book you.”
“Oh! Do you think I’ll get out by the weekend? You know it’s busiest for us on Friday and Saturday. We charge double.”
“That’s a little more information than I needed, but yeah, they’ll give you another court date for your collection. I wouldn’t be surprised to see you back in business by tomorrow afternoon.”
As I drove back to the station with Misty in the backseat, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw her sitting low, watching through the window as the grimy streets of the Tenderloin passed by.
“Hey Misty, let me ask you something. You ever get scared out here?”
“Honey, I’ve been scared since I was 16 and thrown out of the house for wearing my mother’s dress.” For the first time since I’d known her, there was anger and impatience in her voice.
Her eyes looked blank, empty, and I felt myself burn with sorrow at how fragile, beaten, and utterly alone she seemed to be.
I didn’t see Misty again for two months. She reappeared in the Tenderloin sitting on an empty blue milk crate outside of a corner liquor store. She sat on that milk crate with her legs crossed as if whatever dignity she still possessed was wrapped up in her pose. A drunk hugged the wall next to her, his puffed up, sun-cracked lips open and gurgling. Misty’s every breath must have been filled with his stench. She looked like hell.
Life had demanded terrible things of Misty. Between years of shooting her veins full of poison and the hungry, deadly virus attacking her body, she was losing ground. Her skin had taken on the yellow tint of sickness and seemed an inadequate barrier against the harsh circumstances of her daily life. She had always worn her hair long and dyed a bizarre orangish red. It was still long but had receded and now consisted of no more than a wispy tangle of brown-rooted, red-tinged threads. Her sunken, craggy cheeks burned with a slight flush, the result of fever or cheap blush. The chewed up skin covering her arms and legs was almost entirely made up of old or new abscesses and made it appear as if bits of her skin had simply fallen off. I could tell right away that she was starting to jones. She looked hungry, nervous and exposed.
“Hey Misty, where ya been? Don’t tell me you had to do time on that shoplifting bullshit?” I asked, seeing that she looked even worse close up.
“No, I got out the next day just like you said.”
She went on to tell me that she had met a man in jail and decided to share a room with him at the Albin Hotel in the Mission District. I knew the hotel well, a dark, filthy rat’s nest that smelled of disinfectant and curry. I had responded to one gruesome stabbing and two shootings in a three month period at the Albin, and at each scene I found myself stomping my feet to keep things from crawling up my legs. Misty had worked the streets in the Mission and was now back in the Tenderloin hoping to find a more forgiving clientele for her emaciated body.
“No offense, but you don’t look so good. How about I have the paramedics come out and just take a quick looksee.” For Misty, paramedics meant methadone and that was not what she wanted.
“No, no please. I don’t need them. You know me,” her attempt at a smile looked like it hurt, “I’ll be okay once I fix.”
Her eyes were desperate, pleading. I gave her a sandwich from my lunch that I knew she wouldn’t eat and left her alone.
Two weeks later I pulled a night shift and found myself cruising through the streets of the Tenderloin under a cloud of heavy fog, the kind that creeps in with a chill, bullying its way into your body and wrapping itself around your bones.
Perry Alley was a notorious drugstore during the day. Nighttime saw the clientele triple. I shined my spotlight down the alley and lit up a huddled group of dealers, lots of dope changing hands. Eyes flashed as they looked in my direction. Hurriedly shoving money and drugs into pockets, they scattered in different directions like startled cockroaches.
Perry Alley’s damp pavement was covered with a dark greasy residue of urine and feces, vomit and used condoms. Its surface took on an almost purple shine under the sputtering glow of the one remaining streetlight. Tuberculosis floated everywhere, choking the air out of this new kind of hell.
A small huddled figure remained in the alley, crouched down, facing the brick wall next to a bulky metal dumpster. I left my car and walked down the alley, my hands buried deep in the pockets of my jacket, puffs of breath rising into the cold air. I walked to where I saw Misty, sitting back on her haunches, bent over like an old woman pulling weeds out of the cracks in the sidewalk. She was wearing a torn, sleeveless, mustard colored dress and hard, unyielding square-heeled pumps. That was it. Not even any stockings. Her stringy, pathetic hair was damp and pushed to one side exposing the back of her pale, brittle neck. She’d become skeletal, the bones of her bare knees punching up under the skin. I could see a deep shiver rattle her body from ten feet away.
Pulling the needle out of the drained, flattened vein in her arm, her body relaxed and she barely flinched when she saw my boots standing next to her. She dropped her needle onto the ground and looked up at me with an expression that was worn and anxious and done. She had nothing left to say.
“Misty, what the fuck are you doing here?” I knelt down next to her, listening. Her breath sounded labored, uneven.
“It’s so fuckin’ cold here. Who gives a shit if you’re a doper? Don’t do this to yourself. Shoot up in a dry warm place where no one will bother you. Don’t do it down here in this shitty alley,” the desperation in my words turning them into a plea. “Jesus Misty, you’re sick. You’ve got to take better care of yourself.” I felt my throat catch and stopped.
“I’m all right,” she shivered, “just cold.”
I reached my arm around her skinny shoulders, pulling her in close to my side, as if I could compel my own animal warmth to seep down into her bones. Worlds apart, we settled into this unexpected nearness and leaned into each other. Her head dropped onto my shoulder and I heard a muffled sob escape from somewhere deep inside of her.
I stopped thinking about the oddity of our closeness. I simply held on to Misty’s shivering body and felt the world begin to fall away. My uniform, her ravaged body, it all just fell away. We were flesh and blood and then we were not. A soft, unearthly light slipped into our bodies, flowing through me, through her, filling the air, the sky, until there was no separation, just brilliant white light. So vast this light, this beauty, this infinite peace.
We were bent and cold and the air was dank as we surged back into our bodies. I was speechless. She simply looked at me. I helped her up and we walked out of the alley. She refused a ride. I told her to stay out of the alleys. She said she would. We both whispered, “thank you.” She shuffled off down the street, disappearing into the fog.
Two days later, Misty died. Found slouched down in the booth of a coffee shop, she was warmly bundled and had a lovely window seat. You had to look closely to see the empty syringe hanging from her ankle. That same night, I went home and let something inside of me break apart; a gentle crumbling of the pain and fear that had locked me up tight. Exhausted, I crawled into bed and slept deeply for the first time in months.