Survival Games…dave demske

see  for Wesley Willis song,

My Mother Smokes Crack Rocks

nick garden bucktown

nick demske’s first community garden



cat graffiti

Survival Games

Chicago- 1993. Loft on Damen Avenue, among the hookers, homeless and broken.
Dumpster-diving was profitable today.
Found dozens of cut wood panels for small musical instrument case interiors I could gesso and paint on. Chances are they would be added to the collection of uncompleted projects gathered during another manic phase, but I brought them home anyway. Looking out my 3rd story window, I check on the poor joke of a garden my weekend kids and I planted next to the railroad tracks. Hope springs eternal. Still there today, but someone would tear it all out before anything sprouted. Watched a teen-aged girl climb up the small hill to a concealed area, drop her pants, and urinate on the cinders and gravel.

Next to her grew a field of weak scraggly trees and shrub, fighting for existence like the rest of us in Chi-town. Full of litter and blowing scraps of trash. Tried to clean it up once and found a half-full bottle of hydrochloric acid. It started burning my fingers as I read the label. I had to run back to the loft to wash my hands, panicking as the burn increased with each step up the three flights of stairs. The wall under the train trestle had been freshly tagged, yet again.  Almost daily a crew would paint over it- almost nightly, re-tagged. No matter what time I looked out the window- two, three, four a.m., I never saw a tagger. Was suspecting the maintenance crew actually did it nightly for job security. Why not?
Later a motorcyclist would come to a death-stop, slamming into the concrete pillar in an attempt to avoid a car pulling out of the alley. His twisted body would breathe a while longer as the crowd gathered, and then his spirit would leave before I could work up the courage to administer last rites. I may have felt more guilt than the woman who got back in her car and drove away.

Watched the unkempt homeless guy with duct-taped shoes slowly trudging stiff-legged down the sidewalk like a wind-up man or sleepwalking zombie. How his bones survived sleeping on cold wet concrete I couldn’t imagine. Mine ached from sleeping in a warm but empty bed. Once I found him passed out or sleeping in a doorway in winter. I returned with an old quilt and pillow- covered him with the quilt but didn’t want to disturb him so I rested the pillow next to his head. The only thing he seemed to possess was a tattered book hidden in the pocket of one of his several long coats which he wore in layers. The book, bound by rubber bands, was teeming with letters, scraps of paper, envelopes. I would sometimes see him feverishly scribbling notes while he nursed a four-hour cup of coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts near The Alley.

Voices in my head were bothering me so I went downstairs, wading my way through the next-door neighbors’ ever growing mound of garbage sitting outside our doors. Week three and it never moved, except for something digging around inside the torn black plastic bags. My neighbors were a bunch of young noisy kids who would skateboard on a ramp in their loft, often slamming into our common wall. One of the girls, who had been pregnant, sold her baby on the black market. The slumlord assured me before signing the lease his building was quiet. When I went down to complain about the noise from one of their monthly under-age keggers, he just said, “Hey- they’re industrious. They’re making the rent.”

A hooker at the corner of my building stops me and asks quietly, “Hey, Big Man. Looking for a good time?”
“No thank you, not tonight. Thanks for the offer, though.” I reply. She looks up at my face, into my eyes. “That was very kind of you.” What, I was going to be mean to one of the only people who offered me any kind of solace in this concrete camp of machines and hardened people? I give her an embarrassed smile and walk away, remembering the new policy the neighborhood has been employing, trying to chase the independent workers off the streets.

Passed Wesley on the sidewalk in front of the old fire station which was now a theatre for live performances. Again he tried to sell me another c.d. of his home-made music. Wesley owned a tiny hand-held Casio with a repeating tempo beat which he played with his sausage-sized fingers. We were all doing what we could to survive. I would buy his poetry for a buck a page, but usually never had the ten dollars he wanted for his c.d.s. The bump on his forehead seemed bigger than I remembered. Wesley seemed to have increased in mass as well. His size could be intimidating. He approached me once when I was with a girl and it scared the hell out of her. She hid behind me while I talked to him. Another time, in an art store, he was following a woman around muttering audible obscene suggestions- the storekeeper threatened to throw him out, so I took him next door for breakfast. His hand-drawn art was on the placemats, thumbtacked to the greasy walls. They knew him there. He turned down my breakfast offer, but the counter lady slid him a free glass of orange juice to wash down some medication. Since then his placemat drawings must have been thrown away. Since then, he died and his work sells for big money. Of course.

Heading for EarWax for something to eat, I remembered how much money was in my pocket. Stumbled up the steps of Urbis Orbis instead, where each stair front had something written on it. Something about plums. A poem, maybe. A haiku.
Filled myself a cup as service was near non-existent, left change on the counter, and parked next to the window so I could look out and smoke a cigarette in peace.
Pulled a book of darkness out of my pocket which I bought earlier from the anorexic albino with long fingernails who ran the occult shop. Tried to tune out the surroundings- especially the squeaky-clean yuppie complaining to his friend about how he should have gone to the new Starbucks down the street. Starbucks and Border Books were quickly changing the local environment. The natives were tagging everything with protests and spray-painted stencil art to no avail.
Reading in the half-light, I tried to make sense of words which hardly mattered for anything other than as a tool to kill time.

The homeless guy drags in and shuffles right up to me. They’re good at spotting the tolerant ones. The ones that may soon be joining their ranks.
“Give me a dime.” he says to me, looking at his shoes.
I stand and fish a dime from my pocket, placing it in his outstretched dirty hand.
“Give me a quarter.”
I fish again, and give him a quarter.
“Give me a dollar.”
The yuppie looks at us, listening to our exchange, appearing annoyed. Maybe even a little disgusted.
I give him four more quarters.
“Don’t you have a dollar?”
The yuppie looks at his friend and snorts through his nose.
“That’s all the money I got. No change left for the tip jar. Like they earned it.”
His eyes seem to un-cloud at that comment.
This is the longest I’ve ever heard this guy speak. The longest I’ve ever see him stand still in one place. His odor is noticeable. Heady.

“What is that?” He asks, pointing to the book.
I turn the open book toward him so he can read the title.
“No.” he says…”That.”
“There,” he points, his soiled hand poking out of the tattered sleeve of one of his coats.
Touching the page, he points to a word- I think he doesn’t know the meaning.
“That’s…” I start to explain, but as I begin, I notice…what? something tiny and delicate. Shiny. Wriggling.
Creeping out from under his fingernail… a little black… worm?… which leaves the bruised and chewed nail to crawl onto the page of my book.
“Hey!…” I begin, brushing the page- but as I look up he has already turned and is walking away. I look on the floor. Nothing.
I look back down to my book. Nothing.
“That did not happen,” I think as I re-seat myself, watching him shuffle down the street below the window, crossing between rusty cars, not checking either way for traffic.
After several minutes, I open the book, and begin to read again. As I do so, the letters, almost imperceptibly, appear to move on the page. Not whole words- just a letter here, a letter there.
It seems I can only see them move when I don’t try to focus on them- only watch out of the corner of my eye. I blame it on the poor lighting and smokiness of the room. Maybe hallucinating from his smell, which he left behind with me.

“Let’s get out of here,” the yup says to his traveling companion. The other guy stands.
“Wait.” The first guy says.
He walks over to me.
“Give me a light.”
I look up at him… for some reason I’m accustomed to the demands of those living on the street. They have little need for the hollow courtesies of the well-off. Street people need what they need and are often blunt in asking for it.
This gel-haired guy, with his logo’ed shirt, doesn’t look like he needs anything really, except to stroke his own ego. He has to prove he’s got at least as much power as the character who just left.
As I pull the pack of matches from my shirt pocket, he stands with his cigarette poised to his lips, expecting me to strike a match and light it, as if I’m his servant.
I do, more in my eagerness to have him leave than anything else.
As I steady the flame near the tip of his unfiltered cigarette, I notice…a small dark thing leave my fingernail…burrow into his cigarette, and work its way down, closer to his mouth.
“Hey!” I begin.
He turns to go.

I let him.


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