The heatwave in Baltimore this year invaded like an alien weapon, permeated each human being like a sweaty, swelling disease.
“For those who have no inclination to steal, the truly precious is at hand.”– Yoga Sutra 2:37
My job, until I recently quit, was a Verbatim Hearing Recorder. VHR’s are the “cheese product” of hearing reporters. I gathered paperwork for their case, delivering it to the judge, pressing the “on” button to create an audio recording of the hearing, and unobtrusively typed notes in the corner very fast. I subcontracted. Social Security Administration cuts costs by using subcontractors, rather than licensed Hearing Reporters. Using VHR’s technically meets legal standards, but they are cheap. The “cheese product” replacement of hearing reporters.
Social Security applicants lined a claustrophobic hallway; injured people hanging on crutches, blind people feeling their way along the wall, older folks scooting oxygen machines as far to the side as they’d go, kids with behavioral disorders reaping full speed havoc around the infirm. People wheezing, slumping against the wall, laying on the ground. Shouting. Radiating eclectic bouquet of BO. Their woes were a pissing contest up and down the hall; they compared their scars in the refuge of the AC.
These people waited to apply for benefits. I dealt with folks in a different part of the process, in a different part of the building. I turned my body sideways and begged their pardon as I passed by on my way to the security desk in the waiting room at the end of the hall. “No weapons,” I’d declare as I walked through the metal detector, nodded hello, and continued to my assigned hearing room.
I would escort claimants from the waiting room to the hearing room. When necessary to wait for a claimant and their representative, I’d make small talk with the security guard. Down the hall, in the application office, it wasn’t uncommon to hear raised voices.
On a particular day I waited for a claimant and her representative, the security guard anticipated a brawl. She rolled her eyes and glided her wheeled chair to the door to close it.
“Damn heat,” she shot me a glance. “We ain’t even allowed to touch ‘em if they start fightin’,” she told me. “We just s’posed to call the police. We try an’ break it up, we get in trouble.” She wheeled back to her desk where she monitored the other room on a video screen.
“That makes sense,” I told her. Of course, it doesn’t make sense without understanding that the security guard, too, is a subcontractor. It saves money on training. “It’s hot out there.”
“It’s thick,” she said.
“Think it will rain?” I thought about my tent in the woods. The humidity felt forty-one weeks pregnant with rain, and everyone felt like the useless, irresponsible father of the future.
“Nah, not today. Maybe later this week.”
“Where I’m from, Pittsburgh, the temperature has been rising and the rain lingers longer. The city never dedicated so much of the budget for landslides.”
She sucked through her teeth. “Ain’t that how it is.”
Most cases were appeals claims. I became well versed in the questions administrative law judges ask to determine whether or not applicants meet the Social Security Administration’s rules and regulations; requirements for getting paid. Do they make Substantial Gainful Activity (in 2018, $1,180/month for the non-blind)? Is there evidence of medical improvement in the file? Is the condition caused by abusing drugs or alcohol? Every shift, four to twelve claimants described their personal experience of suffering, how it started, how it inhibits their ability to provide for themselves and maintain relationships. I heard them explain why they have no money to pay their bills and how they conduct Activities of Daily Living. If the Social Security Administration reviewed their case and found medical evidence of health improvement, claimants would be responsible for presenting evidence that they had not improved.
Imagine the state of mind an experience like this instills. Imagine how these people are asked to value themselves and establish the legitimacy of that value before an Administrative Law Judge. Their challenge is to meet the criteria of the law, but a lot of them sound like they’re begging forgiveness.
People are quicker to assume deception in Baltimore than they were in Pittsburgh. For good reason; more people, more crowded, more crime more often. Baltimore is just like Pittsburgh except there’s more of everything, including the bullshit.
I retaliated the heat and all the bullshit I silently recorded for not enough money by bumping Black Star from my rusty Sonata on my fifty-five-minute commute from downtown to Kingsville, MD. Crossing Baltimore County limits, culture shifts with the prevailing skin tone. I don’t take the road rage highway; I take route 40 because I love the way sun blasts through this melatonin kaleidoscope. I routinely passed a line of row houses capped with graffiti: “NO SHOOT ZONE #147.” I’d nod at the kids selling lemonade across the block. Sometimes I’d grab a cup. Sometimes I’d I sip my vape, grip my packed bowl, and make eye contact with black men and their abs.
Sometimes it’s crazy to make eye contact with a stranger. Some days, after a rough day being complacent at work, I feel crazy dangerous. I’m fed up. I’m a heatwave. I want thrills, adrenaline punch and go, nausea, gut-churning and the rush of blood reeling in from my extremities. I want someone to see me like this. Know that I exist, and I fight for retribution. Black Star blares from my speakers, “like an ancient mating call, I can’t take it ya’ll, I can feel the city breathin’, chest heavin’, against the flesh of the evenin’.” I refuse their advances but keep the transfer holy. Forge a bond stronger than material motivation by acknowledging the attention to detail in the intention of our movements.
Almost to the county line, I sat at a red light somewhere beyond Middle River, so most people were suddenly white. Less strip clubs, more strip malls. Less hourly hotels, more home improvement stores. Safe in my olive skin and long straight hair, I’d rolled up my windows by now, sparking a bowl safely distant from cops creeping within the crumbling infrastructure. This far from town, they’re visible in marked cars and they’re not looking for me. A homeless chick posted at the intersection was hot. I know because she hollered as much to her audience of cars, of which I sat front row. She fanned herself with her cardboard sign that read, “This is not my fault!” She glared. She percolated, ready to blow, five feet from my 90’s hip hop oasis. Man, I felt so chill in my element, with my tunes and my ride and my magic elixir at hand, I didn’t need the AC blasting in this heat. I wore my damp sweat like fine silk. She popped up and down on her heels, growled and cursed. And I thought, damn I’m so close to being her. The only difference between us is this can of tin wrapped around me. That, and my cat in a tent in the woods at an Airbnb.
I averted my eyes to the dashboard and focused on my periphery. Steam came out of her ears and her skin tone escalated from pink to bright red. I empathized with the angry homeless chick, truly. That’s why, in this tender moment, I imagined her smashing through my windows, yanking me out from my seat and running my car through the red light into rural Maryland. I’d be resigned to pick up her sign and ride the bus like the homeless widow I previously escorted through the forced air hallways of the secure government building.
I shifted my eyes from the dash to the glove box and started to reach.
The light changed and I peeled off into the land of roadside produce markets.
Sunset barely cooled the atmosphere, barely dropped the barometric pressure. My cat’s and my Airbnb host was a recently divorced mother of teenage triplets, one of whom survived cancer as a child and one of whom has Autism. She rented the space to pay for home maintenance. We lucked out because she let my cat stay in an air-conditioned shack where she worked on arts and crafts. Fifteen bucks a night, no bathroom. Cheap. A firepit, beans, milk, and chocolate for morale.
A fire cooked my beans. I resolved to be content because dinner would be a lot harder if I didn’t. Daily milk dwindles my savings, but it’s calories and comfortable, I told myself. I needed to feel refreshed with as little as possible that July of heightened stakes. The sky inhaled deeply, sucked up all our effort and every opportunity we could make for ourselves, and trickled down very little. In July 2019, Baltimore leaned toward the sky for rain.
Asteya means non-stealing; a negative reinforcement. Refraining from stealing implies a kleptomaniac nature. Maybe that explains why so much is missing.
“Just as a fire is covered by smoke and a mirror obscured by dust, just as an embryo rests deep within the womb, knowledge is hidden by selfish desire–hidden, Arjuna, but this unquenchable fire for self-satisfaction, the inveterate enemy of the wise.” –Bhagavad Gita 3:38
No inclination to steal does not equate with no motivation to steal. I stare at the fire, hungry, doing math in my head, running through schemes to maneuver through a harsh material world. I used to steal sandwiches from the school cafeteria when I had money. I used to steal beers from parties when I had plenty. Funny, now that I have all the motivation, I have no inclination to steal. And what is precious is more precious than I previously understood.
What is precious cannot be stolen.
“So much on my mind,
I can’t recline.
Blasting holes in the night
‘Til she bled sunshine.
Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine.
Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline.
Yo, don’t the bass ride out like an ancient mating call?
I can’t take it, y’all.
I can feel the city breathin’, chest heavin’,
Against the flesh of the evenin’.
Sigh before we die like the last train leavin’.”
–Black Star, “Respiration”