Los Feliz, CA
“That’s Glen with one ‘n,'” he tells me. “None of that two ‘n’ bullshit.”
We shake hands. Glen’s grip is as loose and suspicious as his eyes. Are you buyin’ or what? I can feel them asking behind the comfort of his gas station sunglasses.
“How long have you been selling out here?” I ask.
“Two, three months.”
“They don’t mind?” I point to the coffee shop in front of us. I watched Glen stalking the patio earlier, smoking cigarette butts he’d collected from the ground as I worked from inside. The man seemed irate over the endless amount of customers looking for a place to sip their macchiatos. He waited until it was clear, reached over the railing and lifted a table right off the patio. And then a chair. On the sidewalk Glen had set up shop selling incense.
“They don’t mind,” Glen answers. “Do you want any incense? I got all kinds.” He speaks slow like he’s not entirely certain he’s chosen the right words, leaving a long enough pause between each sentence to gage my reaction. Is he confused? Nodding? He’s nodding. Okay. Good. Next.
I pat my pockets even though I know I don’t have any money. “Glen. Man. I wish I could. I just, I don’t have any money on me right now.”
Glen crosses his legs. I believe I am being ignored. He’s heard this story enough times today. I try to show I still care about him and his business by asking where he gets his incense from. “What lead you to this?” I ask.
Glen sips lemonade from a plastic cup. His right hand rests on his knee, the first two fingers permanently pressed together from years of clutching smokes. He sets the lemonade beneath his chair then looks up, surprised to see me. “Chill, man. I don’t feel like telling you my whole life story.” He elongates the word ‘man’ like his parents just told him to clean his room when all he wants to do is smoke a joint with his pals.
I raise my hands to show Glen I meant know offense. “Fair enough.” I wish him luck, and set off to catch my bus. Five blocks south at the corner of Hollywood and Vermont I wait, an ATM right behind me. He’ll be fine, I think. I need to get home, I tell myself. My wife is waiting for me.
I take forty from the ATM and walk north.
“Glen,” I say, returning to his makeshift shop. “I’d like to buy some incense.”
“Changed your mind?”
“My wife loves the stuff. I’d be a fool not to show up with some. How much?”
“These boxes here, these boxes are one dollar. Actually, all boxes are one dollar. I also sell stands. You need a stand? Stands are two dollars.”
“One dollar? That’s quite a deal. Business must be good.”
“What do you think?”
I shrug. “I get it.” I inspect the boxes like I know what’s what.
“That right there, that’s good stuff. Real nice.”
“Yeah. Real nice.”
I pick up the few boxes he has. “I’ll take one of everything. And a stand too.”
“What? Seriously? Wow. Man. Wow.”
I had Glen a twenty. Then another twenty. I say keep the change. I know the man isn’t looking for a friend so I thank him and walk away.
“I’ve been sober six years!” he calls out. I stop, turn. “I’ve done everything. If you can smoke it, I’ve inhaled it. If you can shoot it, it’s been in my veins. And if you can snort it, well,” he wipes his nose with the back of his hand, takes out another half-smoked cigarette, lights it. “Been six years since the last time I took anything. I can’t even take a goddamn pain pill.” He exhales a cloud of smoke. “Fifty years I was drunk.”
I try hard not to shout “FIFTY YEARS!? HOW ARE YOU STILL ALIVE!?” Instead, I tell Glen how proud of him I am, that I hope he’s proud of himself too. “What was your wake-up call? How does someone get sober after fifty years of abuse?”
“I got tired of going to prison.” His laugh is like an asthmatic having an attack. “Now I’m sellin’ incense instead of drugs.”
The last time Glen got arrested, he was high on cocaine and was court ordered to spend a year in rehab. “When I went in, I said, ‘I’m using the day I get out.’ And then I got out. And I didn’t want to use. What do you think of that?”
I tell him again how proud I am, and that I know how hard it is to get sober.
“Well, I got help. I’ve got a sponsor. I go to meetings. I got myself a higher power. I need it because doin’ this…” he points to the incense, “I’m offered weed all the time. I’m offered speed. Coke. You name it.”
“How do you resist?”
“I see how messed up they are. And I see myself in them. I don’t want my life like that. You really think you’re something else when you’re high. This’ll help.” He holds up the twenties. “This’ll help. I’m trying to get out of my current living conditions.”
Glen lives in an underfunded building called House of Hope. A sort of halfway home for parolees, the homeless, and ex-cons. 35 occupants. 3 bathrooms. 6 people to a room no bigger than your bedroom. “Sounds ironically hopeless, don’t it?” Glen is the sixth guy in his already over-crowded room. “It’s about as big as this patio.” My car is bigger than the patio Glen shoves his thumb towards. “We sleep like sardines. And I’ve got to pay $400 a month to stay there.”
“How do the men that stay there afford that?”
He says House of Hope also takes general relief, but I don’t know what that is until I Google it. According to the Los Angeles County Website, GR is a “county-funded program that provides financial assistance to indigent adults who are ineligible for federal or State programs.” Glen tries to earn all the money on his own, any way he can. He says he gets the incense from some, “Real bad folk I used to know down off Crenshaw.” They cut him a deal and now Glen is just looking for someone who’s got an extra room.
“I wish I had an extra room for you, Glen, I do.”
“Nah, man. Nah.” Glen drops the butt of his smoke, grinding it into the concrete with his toe. He sips his lemonade, sighs.
“Can I get you anything else, Glen? Are you good on food? Do you need a coffee? Anything?”
“No, I’m good, man. I’m a vegetarian. I got six years of that too. I figure if I’m gonna go straight, I’m goin’ all the way.”
copyright March 2013 Max Andrew Dubinsky, All Rights Reservered