Driving home after a long challenging shift can be its own unique experience. Sometimes I won’t even get home until 2-3 hours after I clock out. Not because I’m out drinking with coworkers, because I keep finding situations that need responding to.
Sitting in my truck is usually the first time all night that other people can’t talk to me, ask me for help, or recruit me to solve a problem. It’s my little decompression sanctuary from the night’s lunacy. I’ll usually just sit there and breathe for a long moment before I turn the ignition. I usually reek of a distinctive combo of sweat (my own and other people’s), fog machine juice, cigarette smoke, and beer. All I want to do is get home and take a shower or a bath. But home seems so very far from here. Even though my drive home usually only takes 15 minutes, it can feel like I’m 2,000 light years from home.
Sometimes I’ll listen to music on the drive home, but more often than not I won’t. I’ve already been listening to music at the venue all night and I’m done with it. The silence is a welcome change. I’ll go over events of the night in my head, sometimes even talking to myself a little bit. I’ll think about situations I could have handled better, or just actually handled wrong. Nobody always makes the perfect decision in the heat of a stressful moment, and I’ve made my share of bad calls. I agonize over bad decisions I made more than I should.
Driving home in silence I see the night people of the city on their various missions, skittering around like insomniac bugs. I spot potential drug deals, homeless people moving camps, mentally ill people cussing at people who aren’t there, prostitutes with garish makeup peering into my truck window to see if I’m a customer. And of course the first responders of police, ambulances, and fire trucks always rushing somewhere with their candy-lights glittering in the dark. Red and blue flashes of color are reflected off of my bleary and red eyes every night. There’s always someone in peril or facing death. But with our busy lives and self-centered scope, we become inured to it.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite films, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. Robert De Niro plays loner Travis Bickle, driving around in his cab all night long to deal with his insomnia. He sees the worst of people driving graveyard shift in New York City. Disenfranchised, jaded by the filthy humanity he sees, isolated and in his own world of depression he forges ahead. He finds obsession, a cause to champion, and then much violence.
“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.
“I am God’s lonely man.”
Some nights I can’t even get to my truck before the nonsense-responder mode kicks in. Moments after I clock out and say goodnight to some coworkers I step outside and find two people crouched down leaning against the wall. It’s a man and woman who I recognize from the event upstairs. The woman appeared kind of wobbly and drunk up there and sure enough, now she is vomiting on the sidewalk with her boyfriend taking care of her. Much as I wanted to just keep walking, I ask them if they needed anything. I offer her water and ask if they have a safe way home. Ended up getting them some bottled water and a free slice of pizza from the restaurant inside. Notified a manager that they were outside just in case they needed more help.
Now as I’m about to cross the street to get to my truck, I see a dog starting to run across the busy four-lane street intersection. I am not about to see a dog run over by a car tonight, so I immediately pull out my tactical flashlight and shine it at the approaching cars in front of me and behind me. I jump out in the street and start talking baby-talk to the panicking dog. Somehow over the honking horns and vehicles squealing to a stop, the dog heard me and came running over to me. I walked it over to its owner on the corner of the sidewalk and got a big hug from the woman who owned it. A group of people who saw this or tried to help all gathered about the dog to pet it. I asked her about getting a leash or a rope to prevent this from ever happening again. My heart was beating pretty hard. I rubbed the dog’s fur and we looked in each other’s eyes for a moment. I said goodnight to everybody and walked across the street.
I went to the mini mart nearby to get some necessities. For decades I refused to ever even go inside of a 7-11 or a AM/PM Mini Market. Almost every single thing in there is bad for you and overpriced. But now that I work in bars as a bouncer, what other store is open at 3am? It’s a necessary evil sometimes. Every time I go in there I recall the scene from Taxi Driver where Robert De Niro’s character is in a store buying chocolate milk and Ding-Dongs and somebody comes in with a gun to rob the cashier. He ends up shooting the thief dead. The store owner covers it up by taking DeNiro’s unregistered gun and then bashing the corpse with a pipe. This was long before every mini mart had surveillance cameras.
Tonight I noticed three white teenagers all wearing backpacks grouped together in the corner of the store while the middle-aged woman cashier eyeballed them. I immediately walked over to them and stood right behind them like I wanted to see something in the case in front of them. I said, “Excuse me, fellas” and opened the case to grab some water. They undoubtedly saw my security shirt and earpiece still clipped to my collar. I looked at all of their hands to see if they were trying to shoplift something. The cashier came over and asked the boys to leave since they weren’t buying anything and weren’t supposed to bring in huge backpacks. They left the store quickly and she thanked me for helping out with that potential shoplifting situation.
Minutes later, I’m standing in line with my bag of chips and water, and a mentally ill homeless man comes in. He brought in some fast food and started putting it in the market’s microwave to heat it up. The clerk yells over to him, “Hey you can’t use our microwave. That’s for food that you buy here.” The guy starts yelling and cussing, slamming the microwave door shut and knocking over various items on the counter. Everyone in the place is now staring at this nutball. Acting on autopilot I say to him, “You need to leave NOW.” Then he focuses on me and makes a crazy face while he yells, “You gonna kick my ass with that bag of chips, motherfucker?” I started walking towards him and he runs out of the store, leaving his stale cheeseburgers in the microwave. I return to line to buy my chips and the clerk thanks me again. I said, ‘Crazy night, huh?” She replied, “Oh it’s just an average Thursday.”
As I’m finally driving home thinking about dogs and Travis Bickle, I see a fire on the side of the road. It’s a tent completely engulfed in flames right by the street. It’s part of a makeshift homeless camp in a small park-like area of trees and bushes near an overpass. I pull over immediately and call the police. The operator asks me what my emergency is and I tell them that there is a homeless person’s tent on fire at the location. The flames were reaching up several feet in the air and about to catch the leaves of the tree directly above it on fire. Several trees around that one were touching it and would then also catch fire. He asked me very calmly, “Do you see any bodies in the burning tent?” I answered that it was just the tent and the items inside it burning. Pretty sure I would have mentioned that on the call, after running over to try to pull the bodies out of the tent. Strange conversations at 3am. I was pleased to see 3 other cars pull over behind me to call in the fire as well. One guy was a security patrol driver and he got out and headed towards the burning tent. I yelled to him that I’d called it in and a fire truck was on its way. There is a community of us out there that will always help out in the wee hours.
In the colder months, some homeless people do die in their tents trying to keep warm. They use sterno cooking fuel to heat the inside of their tents, and to cook food. Some burn hand sanitizer gel in a pop can as a make-shift stove. Sometimes this catches papers, hair, clothing, etc on fire or gets knocked over. It usually isn’t that they are doing drugs or cooking drugs in the tent. A person might fall asleep and accidentally knock over the flame, starting a fire. Some of the cheaper tents obviously are not flame-proof, as evidenced by this maelstrom of a tent fire. This particular tent wasn’t anywhere near the rest of the group of tents on the grass though, it was right on the edge of the street, on the sidewalk. Most people don’t set their tent up that close to traffic or blocking a sidewalk when there was ample space back among the others. Seemed to me that it was placed there intentionally to be done away with. And placing it directly under the leafy tree feel like an intentional act to catch the tree on fire. I wonder if there was some sort of revenge amongst the homeless people and somebody got ousted. Or maybe the owner of that tent passed away or went to prison and their friends burned their stuff in a strange honoring-the-departed ritual. I’ll never know.
I got out of work late tonight after the bar closed. It was quite a night full of kicking out drunk people, taking care of people who had medical incidents, catching crowd surfers during the concert, and babysitting lingering band members. After a minute or two of sitting in my truck to calm down, I headed home. Sure enough, I see a woman laying askew on the sidewalk too close to traffic slowly flailing and reaching up with her hands. I say out loud to myself, “I’m off work.” But then I pull over and park to go investigate.
She was conscious and attempting to stand up after a fall. I asked her if I could help her stand up and get away from the street. She said yes and as I pulled her up I leaned in close to see if I could smell any alcohol on her. I didn’t. A bike pizza delivery guy was nearby and half-assedly trying to talk to her and help. He told me he saw her fall and pulled over but couldn’t get her on her feet. He asked if I could take care of this since he had deliveries to make. I didn’t see any injuries on her, but she was definitely unstable and had other challenges.
She started trying to talk to me and I recognized the all-too-familiar confused speech of someone with Schizophrenia. She was trying to link ideas and words together that didn’t go together, what psychologists call a ‘word-salad,’ She was also very confused about why the busses weren’t running at 3:15am. Typical paranoid fears of things happening to her that aren’t even possible. I tried to get her to tell me if she lived nearby in a residential home or something, or where she was coming from. It was very cold outside and she did fall on the sidewalk according to the pizza delivery bicyclist.
I called the non-emergency police line and told them I was with a woman who seemed to have fallen, but that it might be more of a mental health response needed. An ambulance showed up in moments and they ran her vitals and interviewed her. I hung back and watched for a while out of curiosity. I heard them talk to her about getting somewhere warm tonight, and offered her a ride to Hooper Detox. She was probably off her meds and needed stabilization/medication management. Nothing warranted a psych hold or admitting to a hospital though. The woman refused any rides or help from the EMTs. They offered her a ride to a homeless shelter as well, but she refused. There was nothing any of us could do. I waved to the paramedics as they boarded their van again. And the woman picked up her bags and waddled away down the sidewalk. She looked like she just finished a shopping trip at the mall carrying her department store bags like she was. I silently wished her well, and thanked the EMTs in my head.
Driving home again I see a very odd sight just blocks from where the woman was found. I saw a SWAT truck with riot police troops standing all along the sides of it, ready to deploy. This is an unusual sight any time of the day, but now it’s creeping up on 4am. No political protests happen at 4am. Naturally, I drove around the block again to get another look and see if I could figure out what was about to happen.
Then I realized what was happening as I drove past a particular notorious club. There is a certain club that will remain unnamed that is a magnet for violence and fights. Bro-dude rapists who want to fight are drawn here by the dozens. Worse even than the unsavory clientele is the asinine way they run their business hours. Every bar in Oregon has to stop selling alcohol by 2:30am. So usually clubs announce last call at 2:15 and they don’t serve drinks after that. Then at 2:30 the ugly lights come on and everybody scrambles out to drive home. Or more accurately to see who is sober enough to drive to Taco Bell, and THEN home. This particular club stops serving alcohol at 2:30am, in accordance with the law, but then they remain open as a hang-out spot until 4am. This is a recipe for disaster. This is when drunk people with no reason to leave stay and start trouble. Predatory bottom-feeder dudes looking for the drunkest woman showing the most skin. Women with more fake breasts and lips and makeup than class or sense. In this bizarre gonzo scene they actually deserve each other. I guarantee it’s 90% testosterone and whiskey-fueled macho dick-measuring bullshit. “You looked at my girl too long”, “You knocked into my table”, or “Hey asshole, wanna fight?”
I used to work the door at a club very near this place. It became a regular thing that we would see numerous police cars there every night to respond to fights. The record was 12 police cars all with their lights and sirens on screaming to the club and blocking all lanes of traffic. We were instructed to close and lock the doors of our establishment when that would happen, so any fights or drama wouldn’t move into our bar. The most famous fracas there was when multiple fights broke out between different groups in the bar and security staff, and it spilled out into the street. There were several stabbings. I watched bleeding men being put into ambulances on stretchers, still yelling at their enemy in the other ambulance.
After that they added more bouncers and big metal detectors outside the club. But it still is a sketchy shady place that I wouldn’t ever go to, and no woman should ever go there. Trust me. So I think this was the city’s response to this club’s history for violence. The time between 2:30am and 4am is what I would call ‘bullshit time’ at this club. So they posted an emergency response SWAT team outside in the parking lot all decked out in their tactical gear and armor with mace, tazers, stun grenades, and assault rifles. It’s an effective and intimidating show-of-force tactic. I think if you walk into a club and see that outside, you might consider not acting a fool that night. And if you do start a fight in that club tonight, may your god have mercy on your stupid soul.
Almost home now, I see my tank is empty and decide to fill up tonight rather than deal with it tomorrow before driving back to work. Gas stations with markets are epicenters for ridiculous nonsense in the middle of the night. As I’m waiting for my tank to fill and commiserating with the gas jockey who has to be there until 8am, I see an African-American woman wandering around the parking lot yelling. But she’s not just yelling at people who aren’t there, she’s actually screaming at patrons in their cars. She was screaming at innocent and very tired people about using their phone to call the police to get her kids back. I don’t feed into stuff like this at all, so when she looked at me I just said, “I can’t help you, move on.”
The gas attendant said he already locked the front door to the market and told her to leave the premises. He was here all by himself trying to run the mini mart, pump everybody’s gas, and deal with this crazy woman. So since she has been told to leave and hasn’t, she is now trespassing. Also harassing and borderline menacing customers. I saw her at the window of a car screaming top-volume at a scared-looking young woman inside. This poor woman looked trapped like a dog in the animal control truck. Crazy woman was still harping about using someone’s phone to call the police to get her kids back. She screamed at the woman in the car, “HELP ME, WHITE BITCH!”
At this point the attendant and I both started yelling at her. I called the police and got out of my truck to start moving towards her. I’m way bigger than she was, so as soon as she saw two men moving towards her she moved away from the woman’s car. She did start screaming at us, calling the gas attendance racist and me a thug. She also implied we were somehow involved in her losing her kids. I described the woman to the 911 operator loudly so the woman would hear me describing her to police. The gas jockey said if she didn’t stop screaming and calling us names he was going to punch her in the face. I was ready to drop my phone and tackle this woman to the ground if I had to. Luckily she ended up running away, still screaming about getting her kids back. I told the officer what direction she went and hung up. I waved at the scared woman in the car and she mouthed the words “Thank you.” I shook the gas jockey’s hand and we both rolled our eyes at the insanity, and I drove away homeward.
Back to Taxi Driver wisdom, Peter Boyle’s character Wizard says this:
Look at it this way. A man takes a job, you know? And that job – I mean, like that – That becomes what he is. You know, like – You do a thing and that’s what you are.
This resonates so strongly with me. Since I’ve worked as a bouncer I feel like I’m always a bouncer wherever I am. Does all this nonsense just find me? Or am I seeking it out? Do I see it more than a regular person because I am attuned to it? I feel like I often work a full shift at the venue bar, then I work a second short shift after I clock out just trying to get home. I can’t turn it off. My parents say that I’ve always been a helper since I was a little boy. That’s essentially what I’m doing now as an adult. Helping others. In that way this is a perfect profession for me. No matter how long I actually work in this industry, I’ll always retain this security mindset.
All I want is to enter my house justified
This is a famous quote from the 1962 Sam Peckinpah western, Ride the High Country. I think of this line often when I finally get home and open the door of my house.
I enter the house as quietly as I can and put down my bags. I go to my bedroom first and gently touch my wife’s leg, whispering that I’m home. She usually wakes up just enough to say that she loves me or that she’s glad I’m back home safe. Then I peek into each of the kids rooms to check on them. I usually grab the girl’s glitter-covered foot and say goodnight, and then softly tousle the boy’s shaggy hair. Both dogs are asleep, one snoring pretty loudly. My clan is collected. My family is safe. My tribe is protected.
It’s the middle of the night and I’m wide awake in a house full of sleepers.
I’ve got nobody to tell all these stories to, except maybe you.
If I were a smoker I would have a cigarette. If I were a drinker I would crack open a beer.
Instead I go out on my back porch and sit on the deck. I can feel the moisture in the air and see it sparkling on the grass. The sky is starting its transition from black as night to a familiar blue glow. The stars start to fade away as the sky lightens. It has just changed from night to morning. It’s not my time anymore, I need to get to sleep like a vampire prior to daybreak.
But I guess I’ll just sit here alone and watch the sun rise.