The Polk Inn stood out in the tenderloin because of all the beige and glass next to junkies selling stolen bicycles and gizmos out front. Tranny hookers checked their weaves in the windows as they sashayed by and winos waved their lotto tickets in my face as they brushed against its elegant modern angles. Everyone was holding.
Clients at the Polk Inn participate in street economy, meaning, most of them turned tricks, hustled drugs or smoked dope with the ghetto blaster guy who bounced up and down the sidewalk, nodding his head to the rhythm of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and singing the lyrics, “The ones we hurt are you and me.” Polk Street was their terrain. My job as a residential assistant was to enforce the house rules.
For instance, clients weren’t allowed to bring their swag into the Polk Inn.
We reserved the right to rifle through their backpacks and purses, but I never did. We buzzed clients into the front door and they willingly held out their hands to show the things they carried: a wrinkled brown paper sack from the liquor store full of cigarettes, candy and beer. My manager said their world was small and that they stayed within a four-block radius of the Polk Inn. But I don’t know. Some clients wandered, like Charlie, a gorgeous blonde, crack-smoking tranny. They had rules and they had chores, like they had to keep their rooms clean and show up for their meetings with their case managers in order to live there.
I became a residential assistant because of a guy who looked like a young hippie version of Robin Williams. He was a case manager who liked to jabber on about how he thought everyone was attracted to him—his boss, his co-workers and his clients. To my surprise, he hired me, regardless of my protracted career as a nude lap dancer in the tenderloin. RA was a counseling position that required no actual counseling, but my duties ran the gamut. At times I was a nurse, babysitter, DJ, watchdog, secretary and cook. I distributed meds and dinners for a half-dozen 17-24 year-old HIV positive, mentally unstable, drug addicted clients. Then I encouraged them to dispose their hypodermic needles into the bright orange Sharps containers attached to the walls. During my shift, I recorded the clients’ notable behavior in a big black plastic binder that was kept in a drawer upstairs.
In the reception area, clients met with their case managers for counseling and to determine if they were progressing or declining—if the drugs were working. The phones rang non-stop while I sat at a computer and helped Jim with his cover letter. He was a dashing, gay, high-functioning client with an actual job in an office somewhere. His blazer, shoes and sunglasses were worth more than my Mission District apartment.
The case managers’ offices were dinky and crammed with file cabinets and folders. I didn’t envy their job one bit, even though that’s the only way for an RA to progress. So, after I finished Jim’s cover letter, I hung around the office and handed out sack lunches to clients. I made sure they included a turkey sandwich, one Capri Sun, chocolate chip cookies and a cloudy red apple. When the clients were really good, I got to give them a movie pass.
At five, the case managers went home, the fog wiped away the sun, and we RA’s took over the Polk Inn.
Armando was short and thin, five feet tall and Latino, with loose khaki shorts and a studded black belt. He smeared grease on his slick black curls and wore a chunky silver rope chain that seemed uncharacteristically butch around his fragile neck. Armando had been a resident for a few months. He was twenty-two, and a cutter. Phil, the other RA, warned me. One afternoon, Armando sat in a chair in the courtyard, slumped over a black journal with a set of skinny pens, drawing. Once in a while he wiped a shiny ringlet aside with his right hand. Picked up another pen and shaded.
“Want a snack?” I asked him. He shook his head and tore another piece of coarse white paper from his journal and drew in loopy, magnificent detail. I looked over his shoulder at his drawing of a giant menacing orchid overtaking an angel wielding a sword.
“That is so good,” I said.
“I’m going to the Academy of Art.” He stood up. Looked at his work from another angle. Sat back down. His forehead was creased.
“Can you play some music? Phil always plays music.”
“Sure.” I saw CDs by Radiohead and Jill Scott that another RA left behind and popped in the Jill Scott.
“Thanks,” he said.
I looked forward to my shift on Sundays because I’d cook dinner early and make it a movie night. My usual dish was chicken smothered in olive oil and wild rice with almond slivers. I wore a red key attached to my wrist dangled by an elastic cord. It opened every door in the building and jangled against the refrigerator and pantry with a loud, tinny clank. I found garlic salt, butter and carrots in the fridge. Chopped an onion. I rifled through the dishwasher for cooking pans. Tossed the chicken and vegetables in the oven. While it cooked, it killed the antiseptic institution smell of frozen French fries and stale fish sticks. The kitchen had sliding glass doors that opened out into a patio where clients sat on aluminum chairs in the chilly, afternoon sun, smoking over silver tables. White plastic ashtrays were filled with rainwater. Butts afloat in the soot.
“Miss Congeniality,” played loudly on the big flat-screened TV in the community room. It was the movie they all voted for unanimously. Clients settled onto new, sturdy couches with fluffy cushions, a far cry from the ratty couches I lugged home from St. Vinny’s— more like scratching posts with springs that tickled your tailbone when you leaned back. Allesandra, a Native American tranny and Revo, the junkie skateboarder, played Gin Rummy on one couch. I buzzed Jessa in. She waddled frantically up to her room, over eight months pregnant. I registered her jerky movements. They meant another fight with her boyfriend outside. Donald, the autistic happy redhead shuffled by in white pajamas and slippers. “Can I have a snack?” is all I’ve ever heard him say. I showed him cookies or an apple. He took the cookies. Shuffled to the couch for the movie.
A woman I didn’t recognize from the security camera in the front office rang the bell. She held hundreds of white lilies wrapped in Saran Wrap. Said they’re from a wedding. Could she donate them? Armando put down his pen and smiled huge.
“Lilies! My favorite! Can we decorate?” We spent the next thirty minutes cutting the tops off of water bottles with scissors and filling them with water from the kitchen sink. I unlocked the case managers’ offices. Armando pranced into the room, cleared a space on top the desks, placed the lilies in the center, and sauntered off with jerky dance moves. He threw his hands in the air as if to say, “Ta Da!”
“Can I have some in my room?” He asked, knowing I would allow it, that I was a pushover. He didn’t wait for my permission. I watched him carry two bottles of flowers up to his room, which was on the second floor, right next to the RA office. I didn’t see him for the rest of my shift, until I knocked on his door to give him meds.
When I did, he showed me two small, framed pictures of his mother and sister. Their faces were round and hazy like from an 80’s after-school special. He told me they don’t talk to him anymore because he’s a gay hooker. When he said it his eyes flashed wildly—practically flirtatious. He didn’t smile. My entry for him read: Armando was social, helpful and productive. He worked on his beautiful drawings and helped me decorate.
After filling out my time sheet, I rode my motorcycle a couple blocks up to O’Farrell in the wet cold night where I still stripped at The Century Theatre till 4a.m. I wasn’t allowed to tell my coworkers or the clients at Polk Inn that I stripped, or to divulge any personal information, especially my handful of years in AA. Self-disclosure was considered unprofessional. Besides, Polk Inn was a harm reduction gig. They didn’t want abstinence talk to scare off clients.
While on the floor of the club, I met a client who asked me to fuck him at a hotel for $800 the next night and I agreed. Over dinner, he drugged me with GHB and I knew something was wrong, so I guzzled water and shoveled food down my face as quickly as possible. No one knew where I was that night. I tucked the secret in my gut and hoped my shame didn’t spill out onto my clients. I was supposed to be stronger than that. I was supposed to be helping them. I was supposed to be a role model. I didn’t want to be shitty to them.
When I showed up for my next shift at the Polk Inn, all hell had broken loose. Allesandra died in a knife fight on the street and Revo disappeared for a couple days. Jessa was in the hospital in labor so she’d moved out of our facility and into the one that housed single mothers. I was reprimanded for allowing Armando to get anywhere near the scissors. “They could also cut themselves on the edges of those water bottles,” my manager said. He was right, but I didn’t feel remorse. I thought it was good for Armando to do something thoughtful and we shared a love of lilies—our favorite flower.
I walked into the kitchen, which is the first thing I do in any place to reset. I stood in the chilly glow of the fridge and considered my options. I swiped a Capri Sun and sucked the wet sugar from the spindly straw. It was eerily quiet under the florescent kitchen lights. Charlie rushed out the front door in a denim miniskirt and spike heels with a little wave. I was ordering Dominoes pizza in case some clients showed up for dinner when heard loud music blaring from upstairs. It was coming from Armando’s room. I grabbed his meds from the office and knocked on his door.
“Can you turn that down?” He opened his door a couple inches.
“Why? No one’s here.”
“I’m trying to order us pizza.” His eyes were two black holes.
“I’m not hungry.” I handed him his meds. He shook his head. Shut his door in my face. I ducked into the RA office and wrote in the binder:
Armando was asked to turn his music down. Refused his HIV and psych meds.
Downstairs, I gorged on three pieces of drippy pepperoni pizza and replayed the night with the client who drugged me with GHB. He’d offered me the water while we waited for our table in the restaurant. It tasted like soda water. Then I felt foggy and dizzy and almost peed my pants. I was shocked at how easily I’d crossed the line from dancer to hooker. Had the street economy invaded my skin and normalized it? I wrestled with excuses and found only bewilderment and shame.
I used my red key to open an empty client room and locked myself in the bathroom. Turned the light on. Stuck my finger down my throat. Threw up in the toilet. I hadn’t told anyone about the $800 GHB client. I wanted to sit in the dark and blast music, rock back and forth in my own emptiness. Rock my emptiness to sleep.
Disgusted with myself, I washed my face and hands and dried them.
Armando’s music played louder and louder.
“God damn it,” I mumbled. I walked down the hall and banged on his door. He didn’t open it.
“Armando!” I kept knocking. Louder.
“I’m coming in, Armando.” I unlocked his door and noticed my key chain still had some puke on it. I wiped it on my jeans. The door was heavy because he’d used a bookshelf to blockade it. I pushed my whole body against it, sliding the bookshelf towards the wall. Armando stood holding a wooden bat in his arms. His head was cut and blood dripped down into his perfectly tweezed black eyebrows. Blood was splattered on his hands and shirt. His eyes were fierce— lacked any of the softness from the other day. His gaze was ecstatic and free, like an angel floating in cool moonlight.
“I’m okay,” he said.
He let the bloody bat drop and it landed with a thunk. Both of us froze together, standing in the dark room with his blood under our feet. White lilies drooped pitifully on a wooden bedside table. My manager must’ve confiscated the water bottle, so they collapsed there, dying.
“I’m okay,” he said again in a raspy whisper. We glowed in the dark. I backed away, stepped into the hall and called my manager. Armando’s door slammed shut.
“Call 9-11,” my manager said. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want Armando to go anywhere. I wanted to throw a blanket over him and pat him on the head and hand him a sack lunch and a movie pass. Within a few moments that could’ve been thirty seconds or a half-hour, the door buzzed.
Outside, the ghetto blaster guy was still swaying to rap music. Behind him were six men in black helmets and kneepads. I’d never seen them before: the SWAT team. They wrapped Armando up and carried him away on a stretcher. His expression seemed to ask me. Why?
Photographs by Romy Suskin