The Walking Dead & the Quest for Clean Underwear

Feeling defeated and fearing a bit for my life, I used the soles of my Converse low-tops to wipe a spot on the pavement where I could sit for 90+ minutes.

Allow that to sink in for a moment: the pavement next to the door for St. Joseph the Worker’s entrance was so polluted and despoiled that I first had to use the bottom of my shoe to clean it. To my left, a hydra-shaped splotch of stinking sludge sat fuzzed with hair, pigeon feathers, flies and variegated chunks of things spontaneously arising from the primordial ooze. Turning my head the opposite direction (but unable to unsee the horror splooge I’d just looked at at), several older men had taken places along the wall with me: a few lying on U-Haul moving blankets, snoozing as though hot bricks and filthy pavement made a fine pallet; a loud, large man wearing one of those letters-and-numbers Navy ball caps, his wheelchair surrounded by his “homeless luggage” (plastic shopping bags from nearby convenience stores) and camo rucksacks, his ankles turkey-sized from gout, and; John, one of the tidiest non-zombie-like residents of the CASS campus/

The man in the wheelchair pointed at a bald woman in a sun dress who was obsessively sniffing her armpits — raising one arm then craning her neck to smell, repeating with the other arm, ad infinitum as she marched on — “Look at that crazy bitch!” he yelled and guffawed, “Bitch, you stink! Give it up! Goddamnit get on out of here with your stinky ass!” John looked at me bemusedly, clear-eyed, shaking his head. “This place,” he said, as though I might be a kindred spirit, “It’s insane, all these people, crazy people. He’s Ok but her,” nodding his head towards the bald armpit-sniffer, “That’s what I’m talking about.” John’s eyes tilted like a couple of commas, awaiting the addition of my comment back.

The woman in the sundress had joined a queue of about a hundred people beyond a chain-link barrier that separated the St. Joseph the Worker building from another, larger structure the size of a high school gymnasium. “What’s going on over there?” I asked, welcoming John’s strange normalcy, completely out of character from everyone else I’d encountered in the CASS campus.

“Lunch,” he responded, shooting me a quizzical look, perhaps wondering why I was there in that Bedlam. Although my clothes were several days past needing to be in the hamper, I was still cleaner than everyone else. “Served until 12:45. Not bad, usually.”

Still nauseous from the sight of the biohazard to my right, I doubted I’d muster up enough of an appetite for free lunch, no matter what they were serving. Deciding to hang out with John for a bit, I revived a bit of my reporter skills, looking to add some material for this series. He didn’t disappoint me.

“What brought you here? I mean, how did you end up here?”

John’s eyes ignited and sparkled, revived, smiling within as though happy I’d cared enough to ask about him.

“Well,” he began, “I was interested in civil engineering. That was my thing, how I made a living. How buildings and streets and water systems and the power grid all fit together. I was living in an apartment, a pretty nice place, and I was walking down the street to the liquor store and ran into some friends. And they asked me if I could buy them some beer, that they had some spice to smoke if I’d buy it for them. The beer, not the spice.”

I wasn’t quite sure where he was going with his story, the beer and the friends and the spice smoking and civil engineering, and I was sorely missing my voice recorder. “Something happen with the spice that, um, fucked up your civil engineering career? Is that why you ended up here?”

John’s impatience became evident as the sparkle in his eyes dimmed to a haze of dismissiveness. “No,” he shot back with a clipped reply. “I was paying a little over $500 a month but then my landlord raised it to $750. I couldn’t afford to live there anymore. Duh.”

I was nonplussed and unable to develop any follow up. John reached for a small hand-held radio, the kind sold as a pair at Wal-Mart for $10. There was no static or sound to indicate that the walkie-talkie actually worked when he depressed the send button and whispered into it.

“Subject has inquired about civil engineering. Also, a suspected agent as he’s asked about government programs.”

With a move reminiscent of a Turkish Get-up, I picked up my things and backed away. Time had paralyzed itself, clock hands clicking backwards. Lunch seemed, if not appetizing, at least a good way to chew up some time. Making my way towards the line-behind-the-fence, I saw that the large block building was not just where lunch was being served but was the main shelter. An older gentleman with a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt (somehow, oddly appropriate) told me that that would be where I could use the bathroom which, at that moment, was what needed to be done.

The building was like jail but filthier, scarier, distant corybantic howls echoing through an interior of cinderblock and steel. As with jail, the men’s room fixtures were immutable metal receptacles bolted into the floor, basic structures for basic needs and no comfort considered. At least in jail, however, inmates keep everything clean and hygienic. The inmates of CASS are without any obligations to keep anything clean and everything was mottled with gobs of… ugh, there are no words. Cthulhu is Mary and her little lambs compared to what greeted me in that bathroom. Eyes closed and dizzy with revulsion, I left as quickly as I could to rejoin a lunch line that was seeming more and more unnecessary.