An estimated 41,000 people are infected with hepatitis C each year, and 2.4 million Americans have it. About 75% of people who have the virus are part of the baby boom generation, born between 1945 and 1965.
I followed a tip deep into the bowels of the Minneapolis inner city to an area called Nicollet Island. The island was an abandoned strip of land that served as the foundation for a large bridge. It spanned the Mississippi River. Most of the houses there boarded up with Do Not Trespass signs nailed over the doors.
The house matching the tip. Tilted sideways from rot. I gave the gray, paint-flaked door two hard knocks.
A tall, barrel chested young man appeared at the doorway. He was wearing an old mob-styled brim hat, shirtless, and a black leather vest. He examined me through his puffy eyes with suspicion. Then he pulled at his stringy, shoulder-length hair, and concluded, "You don't look like a narc?" I shook my head no.
"Is this the place where I can score some weed?" I asked.
"Come on in," he opened the door wider, "the ceremony is about to begin."
I followed the mob hat into a combat zone. Stagnant with the stench of cigarettes, beer, garbage, and ammonia. The kitchen sink overflowed with dirty dishes. The walls were full of fist holes. Upstairs sported a broken toilet. It dripped through a crack in the ceiling and collected in a pool on the living room floor. Blankets covered the windows. And bed sheets stretched over four chairs to replicate a tent.
While tramping over fast-food wrappers. Empty bottles of Pinex cough syrup. "Night of the Living Dead" comic book, I continued to follow him deeper into the house. As my eyes adjusted to the dark. Five more shoulder-length-haired men came into view wearing headbands and Goodwill rags. They were sitting on the floor in a pow-wow circle. Around a legless table inside their make-believe tent, passing a joint. In the table's center was a small multicolored, Day-Glo painted trashcan. A scratched Iggy Pop album - "The Stooges," was playing in the background. "Well it's 1969 okay, all across the USA, it's another year for me and you, another year with nothun' to do."
I guessed most of them to be about 19 years old and two over 21. I was 16 years old.
"Who's the recruit?" questioned one of the guys wearing a red bandana.
"Who gives a shit?" one shouted, "We're all brothers in the revolution."
The mob hat nodded toward me with a thumbs-up in acknowledgment. Then continued to glance and nod at each one in the circle, he exclaimed. "Any brother of the revolution is in… right?"
All hands rose with peace signs. They gave me the impression that I was being sworn into an important mission. The mob hat gestured toward a spot for me to have a seat.
"Friends of mine said I might be able to find some weed here," I said. I made eye contact with everyone in the circle, then I added, "I'm looking to score on half a lid."
"That would be me," the mob hat answered. "Let me introduce my droogies." He extended his hand to offer a handshake, but when I tried to shake his hand he jerked it back. "Your muder," he joked, as he poked his large thumb into my chest. "They call me Jack Shit," he continued, "and to my right here, is Crazy Dave." He went around the table with the introductions. "Rodent, Silly Billy, P.T. Barnum, Sergeant Screw, and Spaghetti Man."
The troupe each flashed a peace sign again when their name called. Spaghetti Man pulled a flask out of his vest pocket, took a hit, and passed it to me. "Aye, those bastions," he chortled like a pirate, with a jeering look on his face, followed by a loud long belch. Shit added, "Nurse! Bring me a drink from Bacchus's private stock for my little big man."
Up close I saw the Spaghetti Man's face was the shadowy white color of washed marble. There was a just-woke-up glaze over his flaky, crimson eyes - like eyes I'd seen on the face of roadkill. I later learned, why Spaghetti Man was so named. When he was high on barbiturates he'd crash into things and fall a lot. Get back up to reenact the fall- thus, resembling a wet human noodle.
"Aye, it's a fine day in the lair of the minotaur," Rodent chimed in, while his head seemed to shake. Rodent had bright white, flat hair, and a sharp nose that protruded from a chunky face. Because he was prone to being unscrupulous, the troupe called him by that which he resembled - a rat. Rodent grew up without a father. His sister impregnated by her stepfather. Both midgets and collected state aid. The Feds had Rodent's draft number. And were on the hunt for him.
Crazy Dave patted Rodent on the back, as he grabbed the flask, and slurped a big gulp. Crazy Dave earned his nickname by hiring the gang to drive him insane so he could plea insanity. While under the influence of LSD he interviewed with the draft board. They could see that he was, in fact, crazy and issue him a medical discharge.
"When did you get out of the hospital?" he asked Rodent and took another pull off the flask.
"Three days ago," Rodent replied, raising his head like a heavy shield. He picked up a cane and began jabbing at the air, and explained, "I beat the FBI by jumping from a second-story window. They'll never get me into their corrupt war."
"How do you feel? Does it hurt?" Crazy Dave inquired while examining his legs.
"Well, I can't bend my legs…" Rodent groaned, "and I'm supposed to go back and have the plates removed."
"May I propose a toast?" Crazy Dave blurted-out. Raising the flask, "Hail the revolution!" At an imaginary line between Earth and heaven, he made a hail mary.
The conversation changed to a raid report.
"I scored," Spaghetti Man proclaimed, producing a tattered envelope from his wallet. He read out loud. "Department of Hennepin County Welfare, $150 rent voucher." Added, "Congratulations, Rodent, your idea worked." He dropped it into the center of the table.
"That's rent for three months!" Crazy Dave smiled, as he grabbed the check and held it up to my face.
"All right, did anyone else score today?" Jack Shit said, " Remember the plan? If we're going to meet Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock we need more money." He cleared a swath of the beer-stained table with his hand. "All right, who got what? Time for inventory… lay it down here."
Based on a half-crocked idea that they were modern-day Robin Hoods. The group supported themselves by petty thievery. The stealing could be anything from a bakery throw away. Dine and dash on a restaurant bill, welfare scam, or selling phony pot. The group was as mixed up about their political beliefs as my Nixon supporter dad - only in reverse. No matter how self-destructive. By waging battles against a corrupt system that could draft them into an illegal war. The ends justified the means. I dug their Zeus energy and humor. Besides, I had nowhere else to go - these guys had a record player and some pot.
"I gripped six phonograph records and sold them back to the store as used," Silly Billy added. Silly Billy was opposite the man's nickname because he was hardly silly. More accurate, he was a fearless lunatic. With his wild mashed-up eyes and confident, half-smile. He had a killer dare like a character out of an old western poker game. He could walk straight into a record shop and rip them off because the clerks were too afraid to try stopping him.
Sergeant Screw contributed, "I scored bread from a bakery." He laid out two loaves. Screw was the largest and oldest one of the gang. He wore a bushy brown caterpillar mustache that had made a nest over his top lip. I wasn't sure whose fists created the rat holes in the wall, but Screw's hands were big enough to take down the whole house. Screw had the demeanor of a gentle giant. I couldn't imagine him to be violent. It was hard to believe that he had been a real sergeant for a search-and-destroy unit in NAM. He told me it was his job to take a team into the jungle and kill whatever they found, even women and children. He told a story of how he killed a young farm peasant in the name of duty. A story repeated so many times while I was around him. It felt like I knew every square inch of the rice field where it happened.
The moment turned to P.T. Barnum and he shouted, "Viva the fucking revolution!" as he often did when empty-handed. P.T was the youngest of the troupe. He looked like a spent circus clown with his bright red face on fire with acne. His hair was an electric Brillo Pad of coiled madness. He wore handmade bell-bottom pants in a paisley print. His brothers and sisters enrolled at the Air Force Academy to escape the life of want. His suicidal father left them in, but he would hear none of it. Always nearby a story, P.T. slept with a book in his hands and talked endlessly about buying a magic bus like Ken Kesey.
When it came to Jack Shit's turn he slapped a knee. He had it covered. The booze, drugs, food - supplies for the front line. Came from his Frank Sinatra good looks and the women who nicknamed him "King Crank" for the size of his you know what. A born jigalow. Shit was the All-Star hellraiser who broke out from small town prison. Didn't give a damn as long as his well off family bailed him out. His on the edge vibe was magnetic. Combined with his nightclub bouncer-like strength also made him the ideal gang leader.
I wore a musketeer-styled hat. It had a long pink feather stabbed through the brim, and it decided my spot at the table. On Jack Shit's right hand.
Shit turned to Screw. "Can I borrow your belt?"
Without questioning the purpose, he removed his belt and handed it over. On the table lay several spoons. Shit bent one spoon's handle back so it would balance on the table and hold liquid. Then he filled the spoon with water. Adding a packet of white sparkly powder, he mixed it into the spoon and blew on it egging, "Come on, baby, light my fire."
He told me that he was hitting MDA, which was a concoction of psychedelic and tranquilizer. There was plenty for me, too, if I wanted. "It's the high of choice because it offers the best mind game without the paranoia," Shit said as he flashed a syringe.
With the syringe, he carefully whipped the powder into a milky-white soup. He pulled the plunger and the plastic cylinder filled with a liquid that looked like sour cream. He held up the syringe and flicked it, like a nurse, to make sure there was no air in the chamber.
He strapped the belt around his right arm and pulled it tight. Roller-coaster eyed, he injected himself with the syringe. He drove the syringe halfway between his hand and elbow into a large blue vein. "Sweet Jane," Shit spit out as he watched a line of blood trickle down his arm. Two more times he jacked the plunger into his arm. And then, refilling the syringe, he stuck it into Crazy Dave's glowing vein.
The group watched with thrill-filled eyes as they waited their turn. One by one they shot up with the same needle.
I had never seen anyone shoot up before.
I was both terrified and fascinated at the same time. The idea entered my mind to stick my arm out and be as daring, but I chickened out. I couldn't do it. Rodent, who was the last to use the syringe. Dropped it on the floor and said with a wavering voice, "We need an airport for all these goddamn flies."
There was one insect, I think, or an imagined buzzing in my head?
Shit called out, in orgasmic, short-of-breath stutters. "I know what to do with those fucking flies!" He pulled Crazy Dave onto his lap and rubbed the top of his head. "Right down the middle," he chuckled, and the room filled with laughter. Pointing to a brown paper bag, he added, "Hand me my barber kit." Someone handed it to him, and he dumped the contents out onto the table. A roll of toilet paper, razor, and shaving cream fell out of the bag.
Crazy Dave sat there like a wooden dummy, too stoned to resist. With trembling fingers, Shit parted his hair down the middle. Pointing the shaving cream can over his head he let a white foam snake loose. "A whipped cream Mohawk!" he shouted. "Now for the finishing touch." Everyone watched as he drew the razor down the center of Crazy Dave's scalp, and then rinsed the razor in beer. He pointed at a new one-inch-wide flesh canal down the middle of his head. "Now we have a landing strip for Santa's sleigh," Shit chuckled. The remark solicited a round of belly laughs. Next, he placed a row of what appeared to be tubes of lipstick on the table.
"No ceremony is complete without war paint." Shit drew a red line underscored by blue across his cheekbone. Everyone followed by making similar markings on their foreheads and chins. The war paint placed in my hand, and they all waited for me to decorate myself, as well.
"Give me your pinky finger and swear," Shit commanded me. "Let's swear from this point forward that we never keep the truth from one another?"
I agreed with an innocent pinky finger.