Meet Shiva Amis, med student, Muslim, extreme outdoorsman, and resident of skid row.
By Shiva Amis with Martin Booe
I stand on top of Wooly Back Peak at dawn watching the colors change as the sun poked up from a faraway valley in the east, lighting the peaks up in uneven rows: on Mt. Langley, Copperwood Basin, [another name] all winked into view on one by one. I turned to the west and the whole ocean of darkness suddenly buzzed alive like an old electric heater, its hot orange coils chasing off the nocturnal gloom. Dusty Indio Valley and Death Valley beyond that, seven hundred miles of punishing desert that I’d traversed to get to this place.
Now, finally, it was just me and the sound of the wind. I asked the wind to carve me into something like these mountain peaks, knowing that is happening every minute, and the question is, what’s left when everything you see has been carved away? Around here, you can still find ancient arrowheads on the flat planks of sandstone they used to chip them out on. I’d gotten to the place where I let the wind do the thinking.
High above the tree-line, I spotted a herd of Bighorn sheep trudging around the faintest shadow of a trail as they curl around an outcropping of rock from a nearly vertical slope. I hear an invitation to catch up to them, and I go gliding down the mountainside on sand that’s as fine as ski powder, sailing along five feet at a time. Before I know it, I’m foot-surfing it through a forest of foxtail pines, their wind-gnarled forms rising up at me as I descend the mountainside caught in a dreamlike sensation of being once and for all free of gravity…
Then I trip over a root. And not really even in slow motion fall through the ceilings of several ever darkening social realms until—plop!—I hit bottom. And I suddenly find myself being welcomed to Skid Row.
“They think they’re free,” Artemis declared, pointing to the skyscrapers. I directed my blurry gaze to the shimmering monoliths of downtown Los Angeles. I blinked. Something about the towers didn’t look right. The skyline looked inverted somehow.
“But they’re not free where it counts.!” Artemis stabbed at his graying temple with his fleshy forefinger as if he were indicating some vast and infinite open space where his mind—where everyone’s mind—could soar like a wild bird with its wings spread to the ends of the universe. He spoke like he carried this ball of clear light in head, in his care-worn cranium protecting it from the corrosive pressures of a corrupt society.
And at that moment what I wanted more than anything was to squeeze myself into that space and get completely away from society. After what I’d just been through, I was totally open to Artemis’ line of thought in a way I wouldn’t have been twenty-four hours earlier.
I looked around. Nearby, a man was screaming, “It’s not like that anymore, Mother of God Harriet, and you know it never was!” He had a dirty tartan blanket wrapped around him like a cloak and wore a chewed-up black beret pinned with Obama campaign buttons. He punched a street light and went loping down the block, shaking his banged-up hand and sobbing. He wasn’t the only one. It seemed like a whole nation of people talking out loud to themselves in anguish. A police car raced by almost silently, its red-blue lights providing a fairly ghoulish illumination of the street, and the blue light flashed on Artemis’ face.
“You buy into that whole deal, get the house, the condo, the big fancy car, whatever… well, you’ve already sold the most important piece of real estate—your mind!” Artemis went on. He reminded me of a storefront evangelist testifying to an invisible congregation. “You give them what’s inside here”—he touched his heart with his fist—“and you’re the worst off motherfucker anybody’s ever going to be.”
Then Artemis jammed his hands into his pockets and looked straight at me and nodded. He hadn’t been speaking to an invisible congregation after all. He was actually talking to me. And Me was actually listening. At first I thought he was a just another crazy person ranting down on the row, but then I started catching the flow of his words. When I started paying attention to what he was saying, I seriously wondered if he’d been reading my mind.
“I tell you this: my people were sold into slavery. Chased through the African savannah, caught up in nets, bound up in chains, thrown into the belly of a leaky slave galleon and brought forcibly to this place they called the New Fucking World, motherfuckers. My people didn’t come into slavery voluntarily. But you can see it for yourself, can’t you? This society we live in is so fucked up they got people takin’ numbers to get on the slave boats! Oh yeah, gotta have me a mortgage and owe my soul to the bank. Gottta have me a new car and owe another piece of my soul to the fucking bank. Gotta have me a social security number because my fucking name ain’t good enough and nobody’s ever gonna call me by it anyway. Gotta have a wallet full of credit cards because The Man don’t trust nobody who ain’t in debt.”
Artemis spun around on the pair of blown out running shoes that covered his feet and put his hands on his hips for effect, and went on thundering.
“A man who ain’t in debt is a threat,” he continued. “And they gotta slave themselves all year in some big air-conditioned skyscraper prison so they can buy an eensy-teensy little two-week vacation and take their time on the beach. And the only reason the Man give’em that is maybe the slaves put off committing fucking suicide for one more year, so it saves him and the life insurance company money. So let me ask you something: my people know fucking slavery, got sold into it. What kind of world do we live in where people are so goddamn crazy they’re lining up for the slave galleon like it was a motherfuckin free trip to Disneyland?”
I looked him over. African-American male, must have been about 60, but it’s hard to tell with people who live out in the open. He wore a faded Dodgers sweatshirt with a hole in the right elbow, and dark polyester pants that might once have been maroon. He kept himself reasonably well, or at least he certainly met my Great Outdoors standards of personal hygiene.
This had been the weirdest day of my life. At the airport, I’d had a run-in with authority earlier that day—Major fucking Authority, Six-hour Interrogation Authority, We’re Sending Your Muslim-American Ass to Guantanomo Bay Authority. There are many place I could start this story, and I’ll get to that, but I have to start with the night I wound up in the middle of Skid Row one night by accident, and particularly meeting Artemis. All the other weird shit that happened was just leading up to it.
Running hard from Union Station after skipping out on a shuttle fare, I detoured right into this tent city aglow with tiny campfires in trash cans and people sitting around, settling in for the night. And here I was sitting on the curb with my face buried in my hands, trying to figure out where to go. I looked up at Artemis. All of this probably makes me sound like some kind of criminal. What I was at the time was a college graduate on his way to USC Keck Medical School because I wanted to save people’s lives. I’d never so much as gotten a speeding ticket.
Finished with his sermon, Artemis shuffled over to me, cocking his head and screwing up his face in semi-mock amazement. “You look like shit!” he exclaimed with a great deal of conviction.
I tugged at my t-shirt, crusted with brown, dried blood. Yep. I looked as bad as anybody down here. It might have had something to do with having spent the last two months in the wilderness without a single bath. Or it might have to do with the strain the relentless questioning had taken on me. I’d never been treated like that in my life.
A police car cruised by. Artemis leapt out into the street and dissed it angrily, somehow turning his whole body into a giant middle finger with legs. Then he disappeared into the dark. I figured he’d lost interest in me, which at this point seemed just as well, though that was about to change.
I tried to think. I’d have to get to Melissa’s dorm and talk my way in. Part of me couldn’t wait to tell her all that had happened—in her honor, mind you—and part of me was afraid of her reaction. If you were going to go through all this for a girl, it seemed like she ought to know about it.
About five minutes later, I sensed a presence behind me and suddenly I became aware of Artemis’ malt liquor breath puffing above my head. He held out a cold, 40 ounce beer with his right hand, and said “Welcome to the row.” He said it in a voice that had a semi-official, Chamber of Commerce like tone, but combined with the sonority of a preacher.
His hand quivered slightly as he held out the big, sweaty beer bottle. I stared at it for a second before I realized it was for me.
I shook his left hand, took the beer from him and peered into his face. In it, I saw the Sierras, a majestic mountain face furrowed by wind and rain. Life and loss. Hope and disappointment. What I saw in his face more than anything, though, was the kindness that only comes from a certain depth of suffering. He just sat there and felt you. Accepted the situation for you. That’s how it all seemed to me then, anyway. It startled me. Really startled me. Here I was in the absolute corner pocket of the city, the place people wound up when they’d fallen through every slot there was to fall through, and I’d been welcomed graciously by an outcast. After my run-in with Homeland Security, this slapped me in the face like a wet dishrag. Or like a Homeland Security agent, for that matter.
I opened the beer and almost wept with gratitude. Not for the beer itself but for the kindness of the gesture. Without realizing it, I waited for my host’s permission. He gave me a nod and I twisted off the top and took a couple of big gulps, partially because I was thirsty as hell and partly to demonstrate my appreciation. It tasted like bad beer fortified with worse vodka, pissed in by a goat. I looked at Artemis, standing back with his arms folded. The alcohol charged through my empty stomach and into my blood stream almost immediately, and I felt a surge of relief. And I started to like the taste of the beer. I think that might have been the moment that spiritually speaking, I joined the ranks of the homeless on Skid Row.
He sat down next to me on the curb and put his arm around my shoulder. “You want to tell me how you got here?”
I looked at the tent city popping up in the night. Same moon rose over Skid Row as was shining above the Sierras. In a way, the Row had its own kind of beauty, I thought.
Artemis stretched his legs out, ready to listen. So I unspooled the whole strange turn of events, starting with the Sierras and through the episode at the airport, running away from the shuttle because I didn’t have money to pay, right to sitting there with him.
“That’s what happens when you go inside the gates of that city,” he said. “Everybody’s born into it, one way or another. But there are certain among us who can’t live there. And what you have to take into account is, how are you going to free yourself? Because you’re one of us, young man. Nobody’s going to tell you how to live your life and what thoughts to let into your head. Look to Houdini.”
“Look to Houdini!”
“Houdini?” What did Houdini have to do with anything?
“The greatest escape artist of all time. The greatest magician of all. Look to Houdini! Couldn’t keep him in a straightjacket. Couldn’t keep him underwater in a tank all chained up in leg irons. Well, one day he got the greatest prison builder in the world to build him a prison that the most desperate man could never get out of. And they left him there for ten years. And when they came back, there was no sign of him except a New York Times dated from the day before.”
Artemis studied me carefully, assessing how well I’d tuned into his channel. “Houdini knew how to escape with his mind. Like they used to say in the sixties, ‘Free your mind and your ass will follow!’”
His talking voice was musical, coming out in deep, rasping tones that resonated with my own emotions. Soothing, like an old blues guy. It was the content of the story about Houdini that mattered. More than anything, it was a certain kind of music. At that moment, I felt like I was hearing the voice of the only other person in the world who knew what it was like to be inside my skin, because somehow he’d been in everyone’s skin at some time. What if it left him broken and sleeping outdoors? That night, I saw nobility in it. He was living true to his own code.
The day’s events had me coughing up my desire to live completely outside society, as far out in nature as possible. And here was somebody who was echoing every thought I’d ever had about it and who was really living it. I was really into the idea of living it, and I still am because mostly people talk a lot without really living what they say they’re about. So I admired Artemis on several levels. He was a fellow outdoorsman, living out in the open—but in the city. That blew me away. This was authenticity. This is who I had to hear it from: the prophet with malt liquor on his breath. Sharing the cup with his fellow man.
By the time I was halfway through the 40 ounces of fortified beer Artemis and I were extolling the virtues of freedom, yelling at the police cars as they rolled by, a spotlight occasionally scouring the industrial area’s sidewalks. There weren’t a lot of sirens, just the cruisers going by with their lights flashing. People staggering around, yelling in each other’s directions, and sometimes seeming to have a conversation. Artemis leapt up on his feet and flipped off every cruiser that went by, which took a lot of energy. Artemis was committed.
My head was swimming a little, but not sunpleasantly. The boulevard was fairly wide, bearing a lot of truck traffic during the day. Sidewalks extended in slabs from a lot of chain link fence. During the day, the area buzzes with commerce. By night, it seemed that every particle of industrious human energy gathered up into a cloud and disappeared into another realm. And in come people who huddle outdoors like refugees, which they are. Tarps, tents, bedding, sleeping bags that have been bungee-corded into a gray mound above a shopping cart were being dismantled into home for the night.
I stretched my arms out and inhaled deeply. It was as though I’d fallen through a trap door and into the gutter. I had no I.D., no money, no haircut, a long beard, and my clothes were just as filthy and torn as anyone else’s. I could’ve been one of them. For the moment, I was one of them. The only difference between us was that I had the ability to leave.
I guess I’d skirted the edges of Skid Row on my way to one place or another, but I’d never really gotten a look at it. Like most people, I was aware of it, but thought of it as something that existed apart from me. Most people could steer around it very easily, and thus it went mostly ignored. Here I was, from a solid middle class family that had the anomaly of being Muslims from India. I had a good education, I was healthy as a horse, and I was on my way to medical school. I was here temporarily, and purely by accident. But anybody looking at Artemis and me through a car window wouldn’t have made much of a distinction between the two of us.
And they’d be right.
We were both veteran outdoorsmen, just different kinds.
He went on about how the body could withstand almost anything if the mind was strong and free. And that the people who sold their mind to the system confused shelter and imprisonment. “You take shelter voluntarily!” he cried, breaking up the syllables on the last word. “But you call something a shelter, and you invite me into it, and you start expecting me to obey your rules… fuck that shit. Don’t offer me prison and tell me it’s ‘shelter!’ Don’t offer me poison and tell me it’s a mother-fucking Oscar Meyer Weiner! Don’t tell me you got a penthouse suite and shove my ass in a bamboo cage!” Artemis was building up to a bombastic crescendo, old preacher style. I clapped along.
At one point, Artemis put his hand gently on my shoulder and peered at me. His left eye wandered off to the side. It was blotted with cataracts, but I almost felt like I saw a light glowing through the iris. He looked at me very intensely, trying to read whatever blows, psychic and otherwise, I’d taken of late. Where I’d been, not just in terms of physical roughing up, but the journey of the mind. It just goes to show that you can find philosophers anywhere, and I badly needed a dose of wisdom.
“I just want to be free,” I said, starting to give in to fatigue.
“I know what freedom is. But after what happened to you, you need to know it ain’t no different from prison on the other side of Broadway. At the end of the day, the people in those buildings just build their own portable jails they travel around in. Own portable little space ships.” Artemis imitated a sleepwalker who thought he was flying. “Drive to work: in jail ‘cause he gotta make his car payment. Gotta pay that insurance. Get to work. Can’t smoke no weed, can’t offer any lip, got to get permission to go pee… all the time, they got you on this hook. You rely on the freedom of your own mind, you can live anywhere. And I live in the great outdoors!”
He rattled the chain link fence protecting the empty lot behind us and proclaimed, “I… live… under the stars!” I looked up above. Artemis rattled the fence some more and sang to it: “Jangle, jangle, jangle.” He clutched the links of the fence with both fingers and said it again, in an emphatic whisper, as if he were sharing a closely guarded secret: “I live under the stars!”
I looked up. The skyscrapers dumped so many photons into the atmosphere that you’d need a Hubble Telescope to see stars through it. I kept that to myself, but Artemis was a step ahead of me.
“I know you don’t see any stars up there,” he said as if he were talking to a blind person. He ran his fingers over his eyelids, laying them gently down over his eyes, as if he were the Sand Man, soothing his own eyes into the most blissful slumber. “But they’re there, all right. Twinkling their pure, precious light on all of God’s creatures whose vision is clouded.” I nodded, but Artemis could see that I was merely humoring him and he wasn’t having any of it.
“These stars you can’t see with your regular old eyeballs,” he said. “These stars you can only see with your heart. Only stars really worth seeing. And I see those stars every time I close my eyes to sleep!” His face beamed and I believed he really could feel himself sailing through that vast expanse of time and space as he tumbled through the Milky Way.
There was something childlike about Artemis, and when he talked about these inner stars, I wondered what series of relentless fuck-ups might have propelled him to Skid Row peeled away like the skin of an onion. There was a moment, when through my bleary half-drunk eyes I thought I saw the child he once was beam through the face of the amiable derelict. In my raw state, this touched me so deeply I almost cried. I made a wish I could go back and find the child Artemis and do something, anything, to divert the course of his life to something comfortable, sheltered, and loved. But what did he need with my help? He had the answers I had been looking for, and I suddenly felt all the giddy excitement of being on my first camping trip and sharing a tent with my new best friend.
I wouldn’t say that Artemis was sober—it probably didn’t take much to keep his weakened constitution buzzed—but I couldn’t say he was drunk, either. He was a different species of alcoholic than the frat boys and weekend guzzlers I was acquainted with. I wrapped my hand around the bottle of malt liquor. Hardcore stuff, a rank industrial product made specifically for hard core alcoholics or teenagers who get it because it’s a lot of bang for your buck. But at this moment, I savored it like a fine and rare old wine.
“Life, it’s all what you make of it,” he said, coming out of his put-on trance. He gave his shopping cart a nudge and plunged his hand into the basket, pulling out several sheaths of cardboard. “This here’s my queen-sized bed! Posture-a-pedic!”
I had my pack with me and I grabbed my bedroll. “This is my queen-sized bed!” I declared, jumping into the game and unfurling my thermal bedroll. “And here’s our gourmet meal.” I tore open a package of beef jerky and offered Artemis some. He declined. It occurs to me now that he might have had trouble chewing it.
I’d been roughed-up, hard-done, and on the run, owing to very large misunderstanding. And at this moment, I’d never felt so at home in my life. That day, I’d gotten a real taste of what it felt like to be an outcast, and now, having wound up amidst the ultimate outcasts, the people living on Skid Row, my shredded faith in humanity was being restored by a man who lived totally outside the bounds of polite society. If this were India, where my family is from, they would be untouchables. And here was Artemis, practically stepping out of my subconscious to reassure me that things would be all right.
It was getting late and I needed to say goodbye to Artemis if I were going to catch Melissa before she went to sleep for the night. My beer buzz was starting to wear off, and my ardor for Melissa seemed to be going along with it. I imagined telling her about Artemis and I knew that she wouldn’t understand. It wouldn’t make any sense to her, no matter how I tried to explain it.
Finally, I stood up, rolled up my bedroll and put the various belongings I’d gotten out to compare with Artemis’ worldly possession back in my back.
“I’ll see you again,” I said. “I’ll come back and we’ll talk more.”
I meant it. I felt like I’d made a true friend.
“You know where to find me,” he said.
I gave Artemis a hug and headed east on Fifth Street.
I left him without learning much of his own story. I wanted to know how he’d acquired the fiery wisdom that sustained him through the rough living in an urban jungle. Had I known I’d never seen him again, I would have stayed a lot longer.