"This is the shelter," Joe Clifford says. He's standing outside the Los Angeles Mission on Fifth Street with his best friend and former running buddy, author Tom Pitts. A car backfires. Then a group of transsexuals struts by and waves. "I never thought I would see this place again."
Clifford, 42, is in Los Angeles to participate in the Noir at the Bar reading series, but he's also revisiting the place where, more than a decade ago, he began hurtling toward bottom and finally finding sobriety.
He walks further into Skid Row, memories returning him to the time when he was homeless, a wandering junkie in downtown L.A.
"It's like recalling a book you read," Clifford observes, passing tents and men with their lives bundled up in trash bags, "or a movie you saw. I feel nothing."
He points to a man across the street — a former vision of himself — sitting on the curb outside the Los Angeles Mission. "You see this guy? He's just waiting for the doors to open at 5 [p.m.]. What they do is you have to have a lottery. You have to get a number around 3. They tell you to wait — around 5 usually — to see if your number is drawn."
In his new autobiographical novel, Junkie Love, Clifford writes about his time as an addict. Before his days were centered on trying to find a fix, Clifford grew up in Connecticut. But he quit Central Connecticut State University and moved to San Francisco in 1992, spurred to adventure by Jack Kerouac and The Replacements' song "Left of the Dial."
Within a year he was hooked on meth and heroin. He started working at a print shop, but he couldn't handle the pressure, and eventually he was just running schemes to get high. In 2001, Clifford left San Francisco to live in L.A. with his then-wife — who had schizophrenia and was a recovering addict. She was trying to stay clean, but Clifford was still getting high.
At the advice of her sponsor, she kicked him out of her house. He found himself homeless, out of money and with an arrest warrant hanging over his head, stemming from a check-fraud racket he had been running in San Francisco.
Yet "I don't see myself here," Clifford says, staring at the people on the corner waiting for the shelter to open. Two men are seated on the curb, eating chicken and throwing the bones into the street. "When I think of myself sitting there, I don't see that."
With nowhere to go and withdrawing, Clifford checked himself into a psychiatric ward, claiming he was suicidal. They eventually released him, and he spent subsequent days searching for any drug to alter his consciousness — but mostly heroin. Later he checked himself into the Salvation Army facility to try to get clean, but he left after they tried to make him go to church. With nowhere else to turn — his parents refused to send him any more money after 17 failed attempts in rehab — he ended up at the L.A. Mission, a narrative arc that appears in his new novel.
"Even though I was living that life, I always knew it would make a good story," Clifford says. He's got tattoos all over his arms, and he looks like a former NFL linebacker who had an awakening one day and decided to quit football to write instead. "What makes you so scared is when you realize you're not just doing research anymore, and you realize you're a scumbag junkie and you're not getting out. And that feeling could last for days or for hours. It's a bad feeling. ... I started writing this book when I was in L.A., when I was really gone."
The farther Clifford walks along Skid Row, the more uncomfortable he becomes. He's looking over his shoulder, making sure the people walking past him are cool. It's not that he's scared, he stresses — it's just that he lived here, and he knows how quickly things can get out of control.
The difference between his life as an addict in San Francisco and in Los Angeles was stark. He had street-level cons in San Francisco and friends to borrow money from, but his cons never worked in Los Angeles, and he knew no one in particular, except for his wife. "This place is sprawling," Clifford says. "This is a nasty, mean place, and they sniffed me out for just being a little hoodlum. You get pushed around. They take your money."
For Clifford, Los Angeles was the end of the road.
Asked whether he still sees himself sitting on the curb, waiting for a spot in the shelter, he says, "I don't want to see myself. I don't want to go there ..."
He turns around to leave Skid Row. He says, "We don't belong here anymore."
Two weeks later, Clifford is back at home in San Francisco. In 2001, after leaving L.A., he was so close to suicide that he nearly jumped off a building in Albany, N.Y. Instead he managed to turn his life around and get clean. He has a loving wife and a son. He has published two novels, Junkie Love and Wake the Undertaker, and a short-story collection, Choice Cuts. As editor of Gutter Books, he also runs Lip Service West — a gritty, raw literary event in San Francisco, which gives ex-junkies a chance to share their stories alongside up-and-coming writers.
But with the publication of Junkie Love and his book tour, it became clear to Clifford that he had to confront a part of his past that he's tried to ignore, even as he's been writing about it. He needed to experience the ultimate closure — literally closing the book.
"I'm pointing out all these scenes, and it didn't matter," Clifford says over the phone of his recent return to Skid Row. "Then, it hit me. You're kind of on autopilot; you're just kind of seeing all these scenes. ... You put up a façade — or a coping mechanism — so you don't have to deal with the actual feelings of it, but it chips away at you, and then all of a sudden it hits you. And it hits you hard."
Junkie Love reads more like a hard-boiled memoir than a novel — placing it squarely in L.A.'s noir tradition.
"Noir is all about hopelessness," Clifford says. "That's hopelessness personified. Noir is one of the reasons why L.A. has such a rich tradition — or any big city. Loneliness and hopelessness is compounded by the fact that you're surrounded by people, but you're still miles away. When we were walking on Skid Row, we're 5 feet away from these people, but from their point of view, we couldn't be further away."
Mostly, Clifford says, he can reconcile the chapters in his life — he's both the loving father and the former addict who once stole from his mother.
"Most of it's easy to accept," he says. "You have a story; it's a part of your past. It's more how do you live with the parts you can't accept."
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