Mid morning, I forget the day, and she texted. ALL CAPS. I used to have a regular work schedule, but with some of the late nights I’ve been keeping it’s been hard. First it was riding with the cops, on a 5pm to 1am shift, but recently I’ve been following Lisa, the young woman in the robe.
She seems to live in three hour increments, which is about the longest she’ll go between getting high. She’s doing nearly three grams of black a day, often cooking the tar-like heroin with a couple crystals of meth. The clockwork of her habit supersedes all other things; daylight, food, shelter and especially me, the tag-along journalist she sometimes lets into her life.
“SORRY ABOUT LAST NIGHT MY BAD BUT HEY I NEED A HUGE FAVOR I NEED TO GET A HOLD OF SOMEONE FROM GENESIS ASAP MY PHONE IS ABOUT TO DIE AND NO CHARGER BUT I AM AT SAFEWAY ON 216 AND WANT TO CHECK INTO DETOX NOT NOW BUT RIGHT NOW BEFORE I CHANGE MY MIND AS LONG AS ITS MEDICAL THO”
Catch as catch can. Sometimes she reaches out, only to disappear. Sometimes I find her, walking, working. This time she was making a big move. She’s got my number, because I’m persistent, but had lost the number for the Genesis Project, a drop in center started by police for people like her.
She was scared, she said. Scared of being sick. And she loves getting high, she said. But she was hopeful. Afterwards? She didn’t see anything different for herself.
When we arrived, she was fidgeting at an outdoor table, amazingly still there. She hadn’t slept in the past couple of days and had been “around,” essentially drifting between friends’ motel rooms and different dates. With the rain, she didn’t have a lot of those. She has a few regulars, but Lisa primarily prostitutes from the street. She’s been doing that for six years, when she was turned out by a pimp at 13. He’s in jail now, for murder.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said, picking up her pink Playboy purse from the patio furniture.
Carey got up too. She’s been shooting a second camera off and on for the project. The grocery store, mid day, was filled with families and there was no way I could follow Lisa into the women’s restroom. She was probably going to use. Carey’s introduction to Lisa was on one of those nights, driving the strip, chasing Lisa’s texts. Before Carey knew it, she was in the McDonald’s bathroom filming Lisa shoot up in the mirror. As Lisa walked into the store, Carey followed.
The Genesis Project staff arrived while Lisa was in the Safeway restroom. When she came out they took her to the drop-in center.
Paperwork needed to be completed and phone calls were made. Indeed, there was a bed at the treatment facility. We did a candid interview with Lisa, replete with interruptions; the staff questioning her drug use and her phone blowing up. She’d announced to her friends that she was going to detox. But first, she had to get high again. It had been too long and she wanted to slide into treatment with as much black in her blood as possible.
Respectful of the center’s policies, Lisa stepped outside to reclaim her needle stash from the drain pipe. Pulling the heroin from her bra, she walked next door to use a hotel bathroom. And then she was ready.
But then she needed to pick up a few things from her friend at the motel. And there were goodbyes. And a crack hit. And more delays. And more goodbyes.
The center’s staff, two young women, stayed in the car while Carey and I followed Lisa. Our cameras made people nervous; the motel is known for drug dealing and prostitution; without Lisa, we wouldn’t be tolerated there.
Lisa seemed to be the youngest of the loose-knit, almost family-like long term residents. Some wished her well, telling her not to come back, to stay clean. Others promised to be there for her, always. And her ex-boyfriend, more than twice her age and one of her drug dealers, looked passionately into her eyes, expressing his love for her.
The drive to the treatment center was confusing, the staff getting lost. When we arrived, Lisa needed a smoke, she needed to make a phone call, anything, it seemed, to postpone her high-dive moment. She was scared, she said. Scared of being sick. And she loves getting high, she said. But she was hopeful. Afterwards? She didn’t see anything different for herself. She would still work the street, but maybe she’d be able to save all the money she spends on heroin.
Lisa made it less than 24 hours before walking out of the detox center; it was more than just her craving for the drug.
“Leaving the Life” is a documentary project by Tim Matsui on grassroots efforts to address Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST). This project is funded by the Alexa Foundation’s Women’s Initiative Grant. See more posts from this project here.