I Knew This Kid

I've been in Austin for almost a decade now. For most of that time, my favorite haunt was a campus-area punk-rock coffee shop named Mojo's Daily Grind. Owned and operated by Wade Beasley (scion of local aristocrat Roger Beasley's car dealership dynasty), who lived in rooms above the shop, Mojo's was a den of disenfranchised junkies, failed rock stars, and other countercultural wannabes. I met more than one girlfriend there, and over the years Mojo's saw me at my best and at my worst, but moreso the latter than the former. A couple of years ago Wade got fed up with the place and sold out to some dumbass frat boy with a bunch of Daddy's money who promptly fired all the help, ran off all the regulars, and tried to make the place "respectable." Of course he ran it into the ground. One or two other buyers came along and tried to save the place but the damage was done and Mojo's finally went down for the count with a massive party on New Year's Eve 2006. A bunch of the staff have opened a kind of spiritual successor called Epoch in a different location, and although I've never been there I've heard good things. But that's not the point at all.

The point here is to talk about Toby.

He showed up around the turn of the millenium, a fresh-faced young kid who surfaced among the gritty Mojo's regulars. Strikingly good-looking and baby-faced, Toby quickly became a sort of Mojo's mascot--he was always around and everybody loved him. I think he was 16 or so when he first started coming around. And for two or three years it went on that way--Toby was just a fixture, always running around, always in the background, always good for a laugh or a smart-ass remark. And that was it; I never paid too much attention to him, except perhaps to be annoyed by his easy charisma. I think the first time I spoke to him it was sharply; I was losing a game of chess against a former roommate when Toby sidled up and sat down. He said a few words to Matt, my opponent, and turned his attention to the game. It looked as though he meant to watch, and I didn't want him to. I asked him to go away, he resisted, and I got a bit meaner. I don't remember exactly what I said but I do remember his response, as Matt exploited my last lousy move to capture a rook: "You better wipe it off and play some chess, boy."

Even then it made me smile, a bit. He had spirit.

In fact, as I would eventually find out, Toby was good for quite a bit more than random snappy comebacks. If you wanted weed, Toby would hook you up. If you wanted mushrooms, Toby would hook you up. Acid? Toby knows a guy. Cocaine or speed? You bet. Heroin? Let's not get crazy now. But even then, if you were a real friend, and not just a client, Toby might be able to help you out. Suddenly it began to make sense how he could spend all his time just hanging around. Hell, Mojo's wasn't just a hangout for him--it was an office.

More than once, over the years, the Austin PD came sniffing around and the management threatened to ban Toby from the premises. But they never did, as far as I know, and if they did it never lasted very long. He eventually became more cautious, anyway, and although you could still meet up with him there to set up a deal, it would always go down somewhere else.

Bit by bit, details of Toby's life slipped out into the open: His father was an itinerant tattoo artist who lived in some other state. His mother was local but had kicked him out of the house and was not speaking to him. He had a sister, whom his mother doted on, with whom he did not communicate. He had been gang-raped as a young teenager by a bunch of hillbillies in a pickup truck. He would sometimes burn himself with cigarettes on purpose.

Besides dealing, Toby held down a job, for a while, at a local adult video store that survived from the 1970s, complete with jizz-encrusted coin-operated video booths in the back. I used to go up there and sit with him in the small hours and talk about life, the universe, and everything. He was really quite intelligent, but regrettably uneducated. That video store thing lasted until the owner figured out he was dealing from there on the side and fired him.

Toby's decline really began, in my mind, with a traumatic break-up with some hot little number who had captured his heart, and whose name I cannot rememeber for the life of me. They were together a relatively long time, all things considered, and Toby was truly in love. She left him for another man and he became consumed with hatred and jealousy. For weeks his every word was about her. He had elaborate and perverse schemes for revenge upon her, none of which, thankfully, ever came to fruition.

It was sometime later that I learned he was living on the street. He would still appear around Mojo's, but he favored it less. Instead, one might find him at any point along the stretch of Guadalupe street between 15th and 29th Austinites know as "The Drag." He seemed to always be hanging out in some doorway, rapping with the college kids and the so-called "drag-rats"--itinerant punk rockers who panhandled for money along the busy commercial sidewalks. For a while he even had a job at a video arcade, but that didn't last either. He used to steal food from various fast food establishments by claiming to be an aggrieved college kid whose order had been flubbed earlier in the day. Apparently this scheme was so successful for him that he eventually wore it out when all the restaurants in the area got wise to him.

I don't know exactly when he became addicted to heroin. He was using coke while he was working at the video store, I knew, but he claimed that he was not shooting it. The transition to needle abuse was stark and shocking. Suddenly Toby was not so fresh-faced anymore. He sported a septum piercing and went weeks without bathing or changing clothes; he looked like a GI who had spent the last month fighting guerillas deep in the jungle, and smelled worse. He was still a good looking kid and had little problem picking up a girl every now and again who would let him stay with her for a week or so, but eventually they always kicked him out. Besides the usual track marks, his skin developed streaks of carbuncles from whatever other nasty side crap was in the black tar he was shooting, sometimes together with cocaine in a suicidal cocktail called a "speedball."

I let him stay overnight in my apartment and use my shower, once, during this phase, and he gave me a small cheap plastic cross on a string given him by some church homeless outreach program. I still have it. He used my shower and slept on my floor but complained in the morning of stomach troubles, which he bitterly regretted having ruined a rare night indoors. He shot up in my bathroom, against my wishes, while I looked on anxiously to see if I was going to have to call an ambulance. In the grip of the drug, his head lolled against the countertop and he simply knelt there, nodding, for a very long time.

He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, he told me that night, and he was paid some kind of relief check by the state but it could not come to him directly as he had no address. It went, instead, to his mother, who kept it for herself. He went through one of my stacks of magazines and traced the outlines of the models' faces with a heavy black marker; this was what he called "drawing," and he claimed that it calmed him tremendously. He said that he went once to whatever bureau was paying his disability and tried to have the checks transferred to a friend's address, but the voices in his head and in the busy office had overwhelmed him and he'd run back to safety in the street.

I never knew, for certain, how much of what he said was true. As with most homeless kids, you had to be prepared to be manipulated if you dealt with him. I was usually smart enough to spot this, and I did not let it bother me. I know that Toby liked me genuinely because I helped him without conditions and continued to treat him with respect even when he himself did not believe he deserved it. I resolved that I would let Toby scam me, if he needed to, thinking at the time that I'd rather live with having been played for a fool than with having denied aid and comfort to a person in dire need. Sometimes by whatever machinations he would procure a hotel room for a night or two, and in these cases he always called me in a celebratory mood, and I would make some excuse why I was just too busy to come hang out with him. His apperance became genuinely shocking, and I expected him to turn up dead very soon.

It was around this time, I think, that the mural was painted. Appearing on the north wall of what was then a GAP outlet on the southwest corner of Guadalupe and 24th streets, the mural, similar to an older painting at Renaissance Plaza further south along the Drag, seemed intended to represent a "slice of life" from Austin's busy street culture. There were college students with their books and sports, there were musicians with their instruments, and down in the right corner, leaning up against the frame, there was a street kid who looked EXACTLY like Toby had, before the needle changed him. I don't know if the artist knew him personally, but I rather doubt it; it was simply that Toby had become such a fixture on the Drag that he was part of its archetype. I wonder even today if the artist knew she was painting a real person.

He's still up there, immortalized as he was in his late teens, wearing baggy clothes and a sentry cap, trying to look tough in spite of the softness of his eyes and the smoothness of his skin. I walk past him every day on my way to the lab, and every time I notice him, it strikes me as fitting that the street remembers him even when most of the passersby do not. It's as if Toby's suffering burned so brightly that, like an atomic blast, it cast his shadow in the place where he lived and etched it there forever.

Toby may still be alive somewhere. The last time I heard from him he called from a motel to say that he was leaving town, and going to stay with his father. The call was interrupted halfway through when my cell phone cut out. He did not call back. I hope very much that it was true, and that he found his Dad and got straightened out. I hope that his Dad turned out to be the person Toby dreamed he would be. I hope that, whoever he is, he managed to love Toby unconditionally, and in so doing give him at least a taste of what a real family is like. I hope that Toby, himself, has hope again.

But I rather doubt it. In all likelihood, Toby is dead or in jail, and all that remains of his youthful promise is his accidental portrait on the wall of what is now a Wachovia Financial. And in the end even that, someday, will be covered over, lost beneath a thousand painted logos. When that happens, not even the street will remember him anymore. I will be the only one.


Anonymous said...

I only met Tobias a couple of times and it was well after he'd started shooting up, but I've heard stories about him dozens of times from other regulars at Mojo's who'd witnessed his youthful charm and wit first-hand, and then his painful decline. His tragedy really resonated. To be sure, there have been countless other freshed-faced kids who have found themselves homeless and in situations similar to Tobias's, but the fact that Tobias had been, as you said, such a fixture at Mojo's when he was still young and hopeful and then remained a fixture on the drag after he'd become homeless and addicted to heroin, a mostly broken human being meant people were reminded of his particular tragedy for a long time before he disappeared altogether. But even after Tobias had started using, when it was clear that he had been profoundly changed by his addiction, there was still a glimmer of that young, charming kid. I suppose it was this dichotomy that made his tragedy felt all the more intensely.

That boy left a mark on Austin, and even if Tobias never resurfaces and that mural is painted over, you won't be the only one who remembers.


sean michael ragan said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Maya. You're right, of course, that I'm not the only one who remembers what happened to turn Toby into Tobias. I was feeling sort of over-the-hill when I wrote that. Thanks, as always, for reminding me that I'm not.

Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to tell you, Tobias is back in Austin and hanging around Epoch these days. Apparently, he really did go to stay with his dad, and he's clean now.