The Bottoms

By Frank Kensaku Saragosa
Frank Kensaku Saragosa's stories

They call it the East Village, but it’s not.

i lived in Manhattan and i know the East Village and this is not that. i mean, it’s fine, it’s got that Space for Art and some cool performance venues, it’s got hip bars and restaurants, and sometimes there’s still that gritty, industrial vibe, big old warehouses built a hundred years ago and abandoned god knows when. There’s lots of new construction, those big old buildings converted into artist’s studios or microbreweries, or torn down to build luxury apartments or million dollar condos. Petco Park is here. It’s the last part of downtown to gentrify, the place that artists and drug addicts could afford until they decided to build even more fancy highrises open even more trendy nightspots because this corner of downtown where the East Village turns into Barrio Logan on the south and Golden Hill on the east, is where Vinnie’s is, and the Neil Good Day Center, and the Alpha Project Tent, it’s San Diego’s skid row. It’s coming up fast, but it’s still the Bottoms, the heart of darkness, where homeless people go to shoot up right on the street, where everything goes down, where they got what you’re looking for, black or white, rock or powder, e, or china white that’s really straight fentanyl, or blues, the little pills that are just pressed fentanyl, too, it’s all here, but not for strangers, not if nobody knows you, you better know where to go and who to ask cuz it’s scandalous as fuck and they’re not just not gonna fuck with you, they’ll fuck you up, jack your shit and leave you with nothin’. It’s not dirty there, it’s grimy, and it’s the place to go for people like me.

Homeless, sure. But place matters.

The Bottoms is in the East Village, but it’s not the whole East Village, it’s a weird sort of square, or maybe it’s a rhomboid, in the southeast corner of downtown, right on the edge of Barrio Logan to the south and Golden Hill to the west.

In the morning, everyone’s out looking for their morning get well shot, or their homie who’s holding onto something, or their connect cuz they need a front, and everyone’s out, looking for something, not just the morning, but all day looking for something or someone, trying to find company or a come-up, same shit different day.

Start from the library. Go east on K street all the way down to 17th, passing a big Ace Parking lot on your right, and a whole lot of new construction going on, or useta be now it’s done, and then past the MTS Yard where all the buses pull in every night and out every morning. At 16th & K there’s the little tiny liquor store, and that spot is active, not inside but outside and off to the side. Cross 16th and the little hill of K from 16th to where it dead ends onto 17th street, that’s Crack Alley, there’s folks slinging crack and guys bum rushing anyone coming up, hustling, middlemanning, saying they got what you need but they don’t got shit, they’re just gonna take your money run cross the street to the lady who’s really got it, pocket some of your cash or a rock or two of your dope and then come back and try to charge you on top a what they already skimmed; it’s a shitty way to come up but it’s on you for using ‘em, and anyway, Crack Alley’s poppin at night but in the morning it’s on-and-popping around the corner everyone looking for their get well and their wake up so

when you hit 17th and turn right, right there by Neil Good Day Center, they got cold ass outdoor showers that’s the best you can do sometimes, and they got laundry machines and a mail service and a storage area and they got social workers and they got outlets to charge your shit in the big nasty waiting room with hard ass plastic chairs TV playing Law and Order all day, SVU or some shit, but you gotta sit there cuz you’re waiting for your turn at the laundry or for the social worker to call your name or because your shit’s getting charged and if you walk away someone’ll jack it, and there’s a bathroom, crowded, guys pissing and shitting and brushing their teeth and washing their shoes and birdbathing, sinks gritty streaked black, ground all wet flowing with mud, homeless dudes wiping their pits brushing their teeth washing their clothes in the small ass sinks getting high in the stalls with short half-doors security can look over some stalls no doors at all, and outside there’s a courtyard and some picnic tables and folks post up playing chess or cards, people jockey for a patch of crowded grassy lawn and dope’s being sold merch being sold, people looking to do a lick, folks stretched out, just straight passed out cuz they didn’t sleep last night or not for days, head on their backpack, duffel bag under their legs, cuz passed out like that any fool could walk up and grab your shit, and maybe you walk through looking for dude who owes you a dub, or maybe you see your homie who just got out of jail or was in the hospital or someone calls you over, wants you to boost some shit for ‘em from Home Depot and maybe they’re good for it, walking into Neil Good through the waiting room the bathroom the courtyard can take you a good minute all the stopping and talking and bullshit going on, but keep it moving, cuz

outside, across the street folks are slinging dope, trading merch, making money, Spider right there, and Scandal, and down a little ways the Paisas– Serrano or Michoacan – posted up on the street folks lined up to do business with ‘em, cuz that’s the beating heart and the flowing blood, the buying and selling and trading and needing, posting up, looking out, getting your come up, getting your get well shot, getting your ish,

and behind Neil Good’s a spot where people go to get high off the street, even homeless want a little privacy, this spot surrounded by big bushes on a hill above the highway against the back wall of Neil Good where you can’t be seen from 17th street or the cars speeding by on the highway. Next to that, a big dirt parking lot that used to be an empty field that they cleared to put up a shelter used to be a great spot to post up, hidden behind fences and shrubs and trees, but it’s gone now, so

Imperial at 17th is ground zero, Times Square, crossroads of everything where if you stay put everyone’ll walk past eventually but who stays still on the streets, folks kick it, setting up their tent or fixing their bike or selling a bike, smoking a bowl or a blue off a foil chopping it up or talking shit or setting a beef or doing some dirt, right there everything right out in the open, on a sidewalk filthy with trash and smeared with shit or trash everywhere dirty smelly old clothes thrown away on the sidewalk soda cans and beer bottles and empty pint bottles and cigarette butts and candy wrappers and little metal cookers and the bottom of soda cans ripped off for cookers and old points and baggies and little bits of plastic or squares of foil and the street is always busy full of people going about their day, even at night, going about their business, doing what they do, dope and dealers and addicts walking streets streaked with shit smelling like piss, walking the Block for anything you want, black or white or rock, for sure, but you need a cell phone charger? We got you. You need a clean T-shirt? A rig? A blade? A flashlight? Want pussy? Want head? Don’t trip. We got you. That’s what you hear down here, I got you, I got you, and sometimes they do, sometimes they got you, and sometimes they get you good.

The 5 and the 94 come together right along the Bottoms, the onramps and overpasses make great spots to post up and pitch tents, there used to be emcampments back there, but now cops hustle ‘em out, the wooded areas off the onramps all fenced off and folks still find spots way in the back that you can’t see from the streets and SDPD can’t go back there only the highway patrol cuz it’s part of the highway so they fence it off, but bolt cutters, wire cutters cut through chain link like butter and along the fence there’s cuts and portals and makeshift doors to get to your tents or sleeping bag laid out under a tree or a cardboard mat behind a bush or even better inside it covered on all sides by branches and leaves and if you go far enough back there’s a drainage ditch that’s a shooting gallery people sitting there, fixing, drawing dope up shooting up, old orange caps of syringes and dirty points and cookers and little plastic water things from the needle exchange all over the ground inside the ditch, people sitting there, rooting around cuz maybe they need something laying on the ground or in the ditch people back there shooting up the most normal thing in the world cuz it’s outta sight and they’re outta their mind, even dope fiends get tired of shooting up out in the open out where anyone walking by can see, even dope fiends wanna little privacy so they go to the drainage ditch and post up, high as fuck and nodding out behind a building and alongside a highway where it’s shady and secluded and comfortable and it don’t matter if they clear the area cuz people just keep going back there like nothin happened cuz to them nothin did.

Most folks coming down 17th turn right onto Imperial cuz they’re headed to Vinnie’s or to the Trolley and you walk right past 16th and Imperial where the needle exchange van comes every Tuesday and Thursday night, 6 to 9, people mobbing the street down there, you see folks you haven’t seen for a minute, where you been, i just got out, i been up in Claremont, i been here where you been? waiting in line for 50 new points if you got 50 to give back and people walking the line trying to come up on points cuz they don’t got any which is why they’re at the exchange and it’s fucked up they don’t just give you clean rigs but they don’t, and there’s all kinds a dope and all kinds a dope fiends, always a party right there.

Keep walking down Imperial past 16th toward 12th. Pass Saint Vincent de Paul’s Father Joe’s Villages on the left, just call it Vinnie’s like everyone else, and it’s three blocks of buildings all owned by Father Joe’s– low income apartments, transitional housing programs, a shower, a cafeteria a medical clinic, two or three blocks of that all that down Imperial on the left, and on the right the MTS Yard, and

the Vinnie’s courtyard is 15th and Imperial, 15th street that goes a few yards in then dead ends onto a gate and behind the gate is where the courtyard is, on one side an apartment building for people who useta be homeless who still do all the same shit only now they got a key to a spot with a bed and a bathroom, and on the other side is a 24 hour public bathroom between a cafeteria and a clinic and at night when the services are closed and the curfew for the shelter is passed and the courtyard is dark and the bathroom is the only one open and it’s not just a bathroom there’s slinging and birdbathing and washing clothes and shooting up and arguments that might get physical and security patrolling and kicking people out and sometimes calling the cops, wannabe rent-a-cops act tough like they got a badge but get scared and call the cops or the ambulance cuz someone OD’d in the bathroom and people posted up outside to keep watch or wait for their homie get told to keep it moving and folks bumming smokes and hiding in the shadows but the smokes give ‘em away and security tellin ‘em you can’t be there when all they want is to come up and get high or hang out and try to get in on whatevers going on, and

But the other side of the fence, the part the cars can come come down and do a u-turn, folks call that the courtyard too even though it’s technically not a courtyard it’s technically a street, and on one side is the showers that run for a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours in the afternoon and if you wanna shower you gotta get there early to be first in line or get there later and wait your turn, and they time it so at the end of the morning shower you can go have lunch in the cafeteria or right after lunch ends you can come back and go to the afternoon shower but you gotta have an orange card that has your picture and your name and its orange and it means your homeless and you can use the services at Vinnie’s or the Alpha Project or Neil Good, you can’t get into anything without an orange card, but if you’re showering, you got a card and if you’re eating lunch in the cafeteria, you got a card, except on Sunday you don’t need a card, they feed anyone willing to stand in line and wait. And people post up on 15th overnight cuz it’s a dead end and it’s lit all night and folks stretch out on the sidewalk and they feel safe cuz it’s right at Vinnie’s and they got security and people sling but its low key, and right there at the corner of Imperial they sell smokes, single cigarettes for 50 cents, or packs of USA Gold for 5 bucks, red or green, that’s all they wanna know, red or green, cheap ass Mexican cigarettes less than 15 bucks a carton at the border but they make 50 selling packs, 100 selling singles, and they don’t do fronts and they don’t take trades and don’t come up with a bunch of change if you wanna buy a pack and don’t come up with 37 cents and a sob story asking for a smoke cuz they don’t play that, and don’t give ‘em a one dollar bill and ask for a single smoke and some change, and these guys selling smokes, they make real money cuz they don’t bullshit. Day or night, it’s folks buying a dime of black or a nickel of white, or sometimes trying to buy a single hit for a dollar, but nobody wants to sell it like that, little crumbs for spare change, but it’s like that down there, people in the courtyard, that’s how they got it, if they got a single green bill they’re doing good, and they’re trying to use whatever little bit they got to get whatever little high they can, and these cats, maybe they’re homeless, or maybe they stay in the shelter and maybe they got GR, like 200 bucks a month, like that’s good for anything but its better than nothing, or maybe they got SSI but that 800 bucks don’t last a month, drug addicts on government benefits or selling their food stamps for 50% trying to get a dime of shit or a nicket of black, or they want you to give ‘em a front, or they’re just straight begging, can you help me out, please, sad eyes all desperate and pathetic hands fulla change trying to pour it in your hand cuz maybe you got white or maybe you got black and once the money’s in your hands you gotta give ‘em something

Walk down Imperial toward 14th and 13th and folks slinging are posted up in the alcoves or on the corners or riding their bikes you gotta whistle or holler at ‘em to get ‘em to stop, looking for customers with cash, with bills, not fronts, not trades, not broken ass shit dug outta some trash can tryna say it’s antique, and there’s other business going on, people spreading stuff out on the sidewalk like a dirty homeless open air bazaar, someone’s got CDs and DVDs and even old VHS and cassette tapes, and someone’s got incense and little glass bottles of scented oils god knows where they came up on that, or they’re selling clothes, maybe theirs, maybe the stuff they brought here in a suitcase, or maybe they raided a donation bin outside some thrift store, grimy motherfuckers stealing from a charity, and you keep walking down toward the trolley past people drunk or high or psychotic or just mad just pissed just yelling at their homie or their connect or their son or their girl or maybe just yelling cuz they’re mad at the world, and maybe you pass someone selling something good, bluetooth speakers or a brand new phone or a tablet, something good they wanna sell or trade, and maybe you got 10 bucks cash or a dub of white and maybe that’s enough to make a deal and then the block before the trolley’s there’s the canopies and tables with the people giving away the Obamaphones all you need is an ID and proof you get benefits and not the orange card, a valid California ID, you pass people walking down the street panhandling, or bumming a smoke, past people in wheelchairs or pulling wagons or pushing shopping carts, past people digging through the trash cans, canning and looking at everything cuz all those guys have stories found an 8-ball, found a diamond ring, found a credit card, but it’s always last week or their homie who found it over there back then and here they are still digging in garbage looking for cans and bottles to make a few bucks at the recycling place, and there’s the group of youngsters across the street by the big Ace parking lot slinging weed, they’re just kids, some of ‘em still in high school or oughta be, maybe they live with their moms in one of the buildings or maybe they don’t, maybe they stay with their mom in a tent, or maybe they just stop in and check on her make sure she’s ok and she begs them u got anything, can i get a hit, and if they do they give it to her but it’s hard enough to come up for yourself much less trying to feed your mom’s habit too, and now your practically at the trolley station right at the bus stops on the edge and there’s so much going on, your homie passes you ghost-riding a bike down Imperial back toward the Block, huge grin on his face showing off how he came up, looking for Scandal or Black Christina cuz they’ll hook him up fat for the bike but the bike’s prolly not worth much but at least he’ll get something so maybe you take off after him cuz he’s about to come up, or maybe you just keep going and you pass the Greyhound station, and

there’s that little market at the trolley station that those Arabs run, brothers, cool to talk to but shystie as fuck, they’ll buy merch but they lowball like a motherfucker, especially if you walk in, dope sick, dirty, and hurting, smelling like desperation, with that one piece of merchandise that they said they’d pay 30 for, a pair of brand new size 8 Ugg boots for dude’s wife, or Chanel Cologne for 25 bucks but it’s like 80 or 90 in the store, and you’re counting on that money but they look at you and say they don’t want it, or they don’t got the money come back tomorrow, cuz you’re hurting and you ain’t gonna find noone on the Bottoms who’s gonna give you 25 bucks cash, and they know you need something, and you can’t wait till tomorrow so you start begging, saying i did what you said i got you what you wanted, please gimme ten, please gimme five, and they fork over 5 bucks like they’re doing u a favor like they’re not gonna eat tonight cuz they gave you 5 bucks cuz you’re just a worthless junkie, and it don’t matter you got a brand new $125.00 Adidas jacket, or a $300.00 Michael Kors bag, or a pair of brand new size 11 Air Jordans, price tag still on all your shit, you’re still a worthless piece a shit and you prove it cuz you take that 5 or 10 bucks and ask ’em to throw in a sandwich or a soda and they say they will so you don’t feel like you got totally raped even though you did, and

it’s always crack-a-lackin at 12th and Imperial, the trolley and the buses and the Greyhound all right there, people coming to San Diego thinking they’re gonna get a fresh start when all they’re gonna get is high as fuck and broke as fuck and grimy as fuck, just like everyone else on the Bottoms, prolly no different from how they were where they came from except the weather’s better and maybe the streets are worse, and people getting off the trolley might be heading to Vinnie’s for lunch or a shower or over to 15th to get smokes or over to the Block to score or over to Vinnie’s or Neil Good to see a case manager or a housing navigator whatever the fuck good they do, people going every which way, coming from nothing on their way to nowhere looking to come up some way on something and if not there just jump the trolley to East County or Mission Valley or all the way down to TJ cuz drugs aint free and you gotta hustle to get yours.

From the trolley station at 12th & Imperial, walk up the hill along the trolley tracks, past the new condos and apartments right there by Petco Park, folks used to camp on all those streets no big deal before but cops hustle people out of there at 5 or 6am so the sidewalks are clear before the rich folks who live in the new high rises walk their dogs or go for a run or head out to work, and if you’re slow or you oversleep or your homie didn’t wake you when he took off and the cops wake you up or drive by while you’re still packing up then you’re getting a ticket or maybe put in handcuffs, helluva way to start the day

and back at the library, people are posted up waiting to get in, dodging the security telling you to keep it moving and you can’t stop here even though the outside of the library looks like a plaza like people are supposed to gather, but they prolly didn’t mean a bunch of homeless folks with their carts and packs is prolly posted up, waiting for the doors to open and when they do everyone floods in find their spots, clustering around outlets, charging phones and portable chargers and tablets and cordless razors and you gotta watch your shit and don’t fall asleep or walk away not even to use the bathroom cuz your shit’ll be gone, some folks kickin it in the big cushioned chairs, napping or nodded out, security guards waking ‘em up saying there’s no sleeping here, but only to the homeless, library packed with ‘ using the free wifi, or the public computers, vpn on their phone so they can download porn or go on the dark web, hiding on the stairwells that run behind the elevators smoking a bowl or buying a dub, or in one of the bathrooms bird-bathing, or shooting up, or jacking off, or posted up outside of the building, bumming a smoke, or looking for a homie so you can go out and do a lick, or looking for their girl, they got into a fight last night and it was fuck you get the fuck away from me but now she’s got my charger or I need my phone

and you either stay put at the library or you keep walking, you either found what you wanted or you’re still looking for something you need, and

you can retrace your steps or stay where you are and wait for whatever it is to come to you or head up to Park and Market, or all the way up to City College, but

that square- maybe-rhomboid from the library to the Block down to Vinnie’s and over to 12th and Imperial and back up to the library, all that is the Bottoms. Or maybe it’s just 17th and Imperial. Or maybe that’s the Block and the Bottoms is Imperial & Commercial, but

it don’t matter, it’s all the same, people trying to come up, people trying to get high, people posted up, bullshit going down, selling shit tbey stole, or taking someone’s shit, or turning a trick cuz you’re dopesick, you’re both sick and you’re boyfriend is useless so you head out to get well, buying shit right on the street and shooting up right on the street or in a dark staircase or in a corner or a parking lot or behind an old warehouse,, whatever it is you do, you do, no shame in your game, that’s what this place is, it’s bullshit and its real shit and it’s right there and some people can’t handle it but fuck ‘em, cuz that’s what you want and that’s why you’re there.

The Bottoms

9 January, 2023