Jackson in Camden

As a young man, I loved to fight.
Even sober, I’d fight. Though I’m not big,
I know how to throw a punch and mean it.
I never fought dirty, though. I don’t like
These mixed martial arts queers on TV.
A man should always fight standing up,
Not on top of each other, on the ground.
Sometimes, though, I’d get beaten, even
Knocked out. Three times I was arrested
And locked up for ten days, each time.
That was my only jail experience,
Before I got hooked on heroin.

I was born on a farm in West Deptford.
My dad and granddad were both farmers.
We even raised cattle, Black Angus, but
None of my family is in farming anymore.
I learnt cement work, and for thirty years,
I was a contractor. I had three trucks, a nice,
Three-bedroom house and five guys working.
There was so much work, I was running around
Like a headless chicken, putting out fires,
But after the housing crash, everything stopped.
I laid off my guys, sold my trucks then lost my home.
Looking back, I know I should have saved, but
Who knew it would turn out that way? Actually,
Irv Homer did. You know him? He was on radio.
In 2002, Irv started to talk about the housing crash,
And everyone thought he was crazy. He wasn’t!
I used to listen to Irv and think, Shut the fuck up!

I’ve never been married, but my girlfriend, Jenn,
Was practically my wife. I treated her twins,
A boy and a girl, like my own children.
We went to the shore often, and I still talk
To her kids. I have another son, though. You see,
I’ve been with lots of women. Women like me.
I’m not like Wilt Chamberlain, with his 20,000,
But I’ve slept with, I don’t know, over 300 women,
Ain’t it funny, though, I’ve been with so many,
But I have no one now. I have a cousin
Who’s afraid of pussies, yet he’s married.
He’s such a nice guy, it takes him an hour
To walk fifty yards down the street, because
Every three steps or so, he must stop and
Shoot the shit with one of his neighbors.

At 53, I may have blown my chance at love.
Plus, I have COPD, meaning I can barely
Breathe during sex. The last three times
I had sex, I couldn’t make her orgasm.
I had to take a long break in the middle
To catch my friggin’ breath, then afterwards,
It took me, like, God, forever to recover.
As you can imagine, she wasn’t too happy.

Her name’s Heather. She’s a hairdresser.
We were together, off and on, for 12 years,
And I didn’t cheat on her once! I was good.
Here, read this text,“I don’t kno what u want….
Been waitin for u way to long!!!!…..” She wanted
To get married, but I couldn’t commit, so
Heather has a new man. Last Valentine’s Day,
She gave me a card that could have been picked
By my grandmother! I had just gotten out of jail,
But I spent three hours in the Hallmark Store
To get her the perfect card. Now it’s over.

I didn’t try heroin until I was 49, and
Last year, I was clean from May ‘till Christmas.
Now, I need three bags a day, one as a
Wake me up, one for fun, then one as a nightcap.
That’s 30 bucks I must make each day, panhandling.
Food, I can get for free, and Medicaid pays
For my medicines. I take eight pills a day.
I’m not sure any of them works. I’m certified
As bipolar, paranoid and I have panic attacks,
But do you see how calm and lucid I am?
That’s because of heroin. Heroin works.
Many days, though, I can’t afford three bags,
So I must find used ones from the streets, but
You need at least 15 of these scrapies to get
Even a bit high, and once, I was locked up
Forty days for having six empty bags on me.

If you’re arrested, they take $35 for the nurse fee,
But once I came in with 85 and left with nothing
Because the cops had stolen my other 50.
They had taken my glasses so I couldn’t see
What I was signing when I was processed.
What’s worse are the fines. If you’re charged
With loitering in a drug zone, they fine you $500,
But all of Camden is a drug zone! They can also
Fine you for panhandling and obstructing traffic,
Then they’ll charge you for the court cost too, so
You can easily owe them over a thousand from
A single arrest, and you’re a homeless person!
The judge will put you on a payment plan
Of only $25 a month, but sooner or later
You’ll miss a payment. That’ll give them
Another reason to lock your ass up.

At least I haven’t been killed out here.
One time a guy hit me with a steel pipe
Out of the blue. When I saw him coming
I thought he was just walking up to say hi.
I’ve been robbed several times, and a friend
Put a gun to my head because I couldn’t pay
Money I owed him. I was thinking, Is this
How it’s going to end? I wasn’t scared,
I was just sad I hadn’t spent more time
With my family. I’m talking about my kids,
And brothers and sisters, even the ones
Who don’t like me very much. I said, “Al,
You don’t need to do this. It’s not worth it.”
He took a deep breath and lowered his gun,
But then he said, “Put out your leg, Jackson.
I want to shoot you in the leg.” “Fuck you!”
I said. “You’re not shooting me in no leg!”
Al ended up not shooting me at all, and
I actually paid him back every single dime.
Three days later, I was walking on Linden
When I just started sobbing. I was so sad
I hadn’t spent more time with my family.

At least I haven’t died from an OD.
If you see an ambulance in Camden,
It’s nearly always a heroin overdose,
Dealers do have a sense of humor, though.
Check out what they call heroin: Lights Out,
Dead On Arrival, Slave Master, Body Master,
Angry Bird, Death Row, Jersey Devil, Punisher.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He's tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America. Read other articles by Linh.