I have worked in hard-scrabble West Oakland now for well over twenty years. And in those twenty years I have seen almost everything a person should want, or need to experience. The poor and cast-out, the working disenfranchised, prostitutes, addicts, hipsters and gang-bangers. I am often surprised to find glimmers of hope and optimism in this forgotten corner of the Bay Area. This past week was not one of those moments.
Walking into my factory this past Tuesday morning I happened to glance down at the debris box in my loading bay. In the box, among the detritus of my shop, was a tattered old leather suitcase, top splayed open, revealing the contents of a life. I asked my shop foreman who it belonged to, and what it was doing in our debris box. He responded that it was tossed by our shop door that morning, the contents blowing all over the street. He had collected the bits and pieces and disposed of them in the debris box.
What caught my eye immediately were photographs, hundreds of them, all of the same family, all containing pictures of a middle aged woman, a local street addict that I have seen for years, a person I have had to ask to leave my premises many times over for her unruly behavior.
I took the photos out to take a closer look. They revealed a life, a once very normal American life, of Christmas’s and Holidays, cheer leading school and family, parents and siblings. These pictures, put together, painted a picture of a good life, a life that could have been yours or mine. But somehow, the sweet smiling teen, the cherubic Camp Fire Girl, the sister, the daughter, depicted in these photos had gone down a dark and desperate path. It was one of the saddest things I can remember viewing in a very long time.
I tried to put the pictures together in my mind with the person I knew was in them. What had happened to her? And what had happened to the other people in the photos? Why did she have in her possession all of the pictures that represented her, and her families entire existence? Was she all that remained of the family? Had something so tragic occurred to her family, that she had resorted to going down this deep, dark path of being an addict living on streets? Were these photos all that remained of a once very normal existence?
I called social services to report what I had found, and asked them to send a local case worker over to take a look. A short time later a car arrived with a case worker I have seen many times over the years. I showed him what we had found. He looked at five or ten pictures, and let them drop back into the suitcase. “That’s Susan, you know her, everybody around Wood Street does. She died of an overdose two weeks ago. No family to speak of. She led a hard life”.
I knew an addict named Susan also, I now knew her well. One thing I can say is, she once had a good life. A life that at some point changed, but not for the better. I now don’t think of the unruly, cursing addict Susan when I see her in my mind, I see her as a happy chubby girl in her Camp Fire Girl uniform at a better time in her life.