12 Cocaine Years A Community Service Slave
By Charles Orloski
03 January, 2015
More than halfway through my bi-weekly collection of Pennsylvania's 26-weeks of “Unemployment Compensation,” a mid-July 2014 stroll north on Scranton's Penn Avenue was the healthiest psychological walk I could take. Hell bent on getting a school bus driver license by mid-August, and having deactivated two decades of responding to emergency fuel, chemical, and blood spills, I liked to look at people assembled nearby the Saint Francis of Assisi Soup Kitchen. Much different in attire and attitude than what's typically observed around downtown offices; for example, one might commonly greet 67-year old Paula who usually wore a flimsy pink dress, flip-flops, two breasts removed, she'd smile and lament, “all the mean druggie kids who are taking over at the shelter.”
Sounds hard, Paula. Uh, I forgot... when are you eligible to move into a N. Washington Street high-rise apartment?
“Why that should have happened long ago, Chuck! I 'dunno, mind is slipping, just keeping track of winding my wall clock everyday is a handful. Say, can you set it for me?”
Paula reached into a Boscov shopping bag, and withdrew a plastic wall clock, handed it to me for inspection. “It's a dandy clock, ain't it, Chuck?”
O yea, but looks like it needs new batteries, Paula. How about after 11:00 A.M. meal, I'll go and buy you batteries at Dollar General, set the clock?”
“That's a deal, Chuck, I'll be alright until Daylight Savings Time comes around again. Say, do you know what happened to Dave the cook? He ain't been around all week, and I miss the extra strawberries he puts in the fruit salad.”
Have not volunteered since fourth of July, Paula, and maybe Dave Perry's on vacation? Will soon find out, must go inside kitchen, get to work. Catch 'ya later Paula, and I'll get your wall clock ticking. .
I looked at watch, Friday, July 18, 8;30 A.M. In order for volunteers to gain entry into St. Francis Kitchen, one must press a buzzer located on a locked glass door panel. Soon, Jack the van driver arrived at door, opened, and let me in. Unusually quiet, Jack smiled but did not say much. I proceeded down corridor, passed the kitchen's huge freezer on right, straight ahead, I saw Clint stocking shelves in the condiment room. Immediately entered kitchen, donned an apron, surgical gloves, and visor cap, and drew a cutting board off shelf, needed for peeling a 50-pound bag of potatoes. The kitchen's usual personality changed, Hank not bickering with old John, and a group of new volunteers were busy cutting fresh fruit. Knife in-hand, I peeled potato, Chick the Chief Cook required absolutely no “brown eye peels” by the time full pot would reach his station.
Mind silently locked-up with potatoes until Jack approached, nudged my side, said, “Uh Chuck, just so you know, Dave the cook is dead. Something happened while fishing in shallow water, his legs got caught, drowned. He f*ucking died man, and the lady over there, putting pastry on table, is his widow Anita, the rest are Dave's family. They came to volunteer in Dave's memory.”
Nodded to Jack, approached widow Anita, gave her hug and peck upon cheek. She proudly wore Dave's Vietnam Veteran, P.O.W./M.I.A. black cap. “It's 'gonna get very tough for me, sir. Dave did it all, he was the one who always organized my prescription meds, knew when to take them, how many.” That's a hard part Anita, so sorry, and I moved toward the kitchen's station dedicated to washing plates and silverware. Inside, Big Frank diligently placed used aprons, hair nets, caps, and towels in a basket . Close by, an African-American fellow, with a gimpy left arm, stood beside sink, placed large knives in dish washer. Unless high school and college students, kitchen help never knew who were volunteers, who were assigned by a Judge to community service. An amiable and benevolent expression on his face, the man, late 60s, handsome and fit, took clean towel, began to wipe counter clean, chuckled and whistled a song which could enliven a feckless boll weevil. Suddenly, he stopped, turned, brushed-off jeans and white insulated long-sleeve shirt, reached hand toward mine.
“Yo man, my name's Ronnie, what are 'ya doing down here on the Saint's K.P. Duty?”
Please call me 'Chuck,' Ronnie, uh..., have you ever heard of penance? I was a bad
emergency response boy for twenty some years, and this past March, lost my job. So I
volunteer here for penance – ever hear about penance, Ronnie?
“Ain't that something new Pope wants us to do when 'ya go black sheep a
Well, yea, that's a helluva smart way to put it, Ronnie, thanks a lot. Where are you from?
“I live in Dunmore now.” He hesitated, thought for a moment, smiled. “I suppose
County Judge gave me penance, he also give me free ankle bracelet and 75-days of
community service. O that Judge, man... he just don't like me one bit!”
I know its taboo to ask, Ronnie, but how did you get into trouble with the law?
“Greed, Chuck. I'm a greedy colored man, always wanted more since a child living in the
Bronx. Would try and steal marbles away from kids while they was distracted. Then come
the cocaine, in late-1970s, left family behind in the Bronx for Scranton. Never done told
them 'bout the big plans I had for getting a good paying air conditioner making job which I
never did get. Shucks, took warm refugee in cocaine instead – my, my, how I love cocaine!”
Family stuff and getaway highs can get real weird, Ronnie. Mind if I tell you something
about Solomon Northrup?
“Sure enough, Chuck, all the time, I listen to sermons on Penn Avenue concrete wall,
sermons on the library lawn. But Solomon Nor..., who he? I ain't never heard 'bout that
guy you're telling .”
Well, Ronnie, prior to Civil War, Solomon Northrup was a black man who lived in upper-
state New York. An industrious “freeman,”talented violin player, a couple slick guys coaxed
him to travel south to Washington, D.C., and play for carnival crowds, make big bucks.
And like you, Ronnie, Solomon left home, did not bother to tell wife Anne where he's gone.
“Man alive, Chuck. Eh, sounds spooky familiar.... How you know all that?”
Years ago, immature, I read Solomon's book, called 12 Years A Slave. Instead of
making quick bucks at carnies, return home, two white men gave Solomon belladonna,
made him “sick as dog.” When he woke-up in a secret Capital cellar, he was sent to
see a doctor, ended-up chained and destined for sale in the unhealthy Louisiana lowlands.
Later, slave owners christened him with new a name, “Platt.”
“Belladonna..., man I heard about that stuff. Bad shit! A Lackawanna County
jailbird once told me Charlie Manson gave belladonna to family girlies, made 'em fit to be
That might be right, Ronnie. And like your case, the California Judge did not care for
Charlie much, he got life, not community service.
“O yea, my Judge overseer is mean but merciful about my greed and cocaine carrying-on.
And the government ain't yet moved to place me in irons, then cotton fields, like poor
ole Platt done, uh... so what 'ya doing now to make living, Chuck?”
Planning to get licensed, come September, drive Scranton School Bus, maybe make enough
money to get by.
“That's a sweet demon's tempting offer, Mr. Chuck! Damn, wish I could pass random drug
piss tests, I'd do the same. Drive all them unruly young ins to school, teach them lesson
or two about GREED, what it done-done to a happy old colored man. Hee-hee.”
Chick the chief cook began to notice my absence from the cutting table, and began to fret.
My conversation with Ronnie had to end abruptly, and I offered him a ride home, of course
after the 11:00 A.M. meal was served, the Kitchen rendered sparkling clean.
“That's a deal, Mr. Chuck. See 'ya out back, later.”
The Saint Francis of Assisi Soup Kitchen potatoes were very impressive. Large, irregular they were a model for a runaway slave's elliptical trajectory. Plunged knife edge to remove a deep potato eye, I looked now and then at Dave Perry's widow. Extremely mild and accepting, her husband's mysterious drowning (in very shallow water) seemed nothing as dangerous as The Great Pacoudrie Swamp which Solomon Northrup transgressed while escaping Master Epps' cat-o'-nine-tail beatings. Soon, 11:00 A.M., St. Francis Soup Kitchen doors opened, an elderly lady asked workers and guests to remove hats, she said “Grace” aloud.
I doled-out fruit salad, a couple stations to right, widow Anita offered guests several enticing pastry choices. Lots of familiar faces in line, five people entered at intervals; typically elderly men, youth in early twenties, junkies, the down-and-out, a woman with two toddlers and a baby in stroller, an occasional homeless person, the latter easily identified by lugging a backpack filled with all possessions. A fifty-something couple, lady and man, known for volatile gibberish passed by Dave's widow; chocolate cake placed on their caramel colored trays. I recalled serving just several weeks ago, Memorial Day, 2014. The very same couple angered Vietnam Veteran Dave Perry by approaching the food line, wearing soiled T-shirts, with peace signs. Enraged, Dave screamed at the couple for blaspheming patriotism, and demanded their permanent ousting from the kitchen. Unlike 19th Century Louisiana Plantation law, the “in-your-face” couple were allowed to stay under the statutes of St. Francis. They were free to eat meals, antagonize war veterans – their invitation extended way beyond the long pure white lines of cocaine and shallow water which took Ronnie and Dave down.
Meal ended, and I committed to cleaning the tables, swept kitchen floor. In meantime, Ronnie completed washing trays and silverware, and joined me in carrying a heavy garbage bag and lifting the trash inside the kitchen's “hopper” container. “Man, that's heavy... people sure tend to waste lots of food, eh Chuck?” Yea, I replied, I've done a lot of wasting in my time too, in fact, I'm still wasting, Ronnie. His community service obligation for the day fulfilled, I told Paula that as soon as I drive Ronnie home, I will immediately return with new batteries for her wall clock. “Sounds good, Chuck, I almost forgot about my stupid clock,” she said.
Inside family KIA, I told Ronnie he's allowed to smoke cigarettes as he pleased. He indicated, “Nah, Chuck. I give-up the habit when cigarette prices got too near the cost for Spice, let alone cocaine.”
What's Spice go for on Scranton streets, Ronnie?
“You can buy it illegal at $3.00 and then sell it for $10.00!”
Man, that's respectable profit. A tempting opportunity instead of driving school bus, eh
“O yea, Mr. Chuck. Just be warned about the GREED that's gotten me here! I tell my
kids about that, what I done learned-learned, but never once practiced ever before in my
life. Just don't forget to tell your wife though, and don't be like Mr. Platt and swallow
the money fibs which got him being 12 years a slave.”
Ronnie and I drove east, Scranton's famed Hill Section. Halted at a Jefferson Street stop sign, stayed straight for one half block, and stopped the car in front of the Mercy Hospital roll-off containers and trash compactor. Ronnie said, “what 'ya 'gonna do, Chuck, someone sick inside hospital you know?
No Ronnie, nostalgic, I stop and look every time I pass this spot. My two sons were born in
Mercy Hospital, 1990s.
“So why you stopping now to look at garbage hoppers?”
Well, I once worked inside one of those roll-offs back in around July 2005. 1.
“You got to be joshing, Mr. Chuck. Why you put me on like that, you an educated man?”
Yea, but I soon learned “asses and elbows” labor was better for my company owner than
anything I knew about E.P.A. waste disposal and blood-borne hazards.
“Come on now, tell me what you did to fix them smelly hoppers?”
“Hospitals are not allowed to place bloody needles, tubes, and garments inside trash
containers, but as things actually are, Mercy staff did, and landfill inspectors found-out
about such illegal disposal, and sent two rejected (and completely filled) roll-offs back to
Mercy Hospital management.
“Jumping Jesus! How did you get all that bloody stuff out of the jam packed roll-off
boxes, Mr. Chuck?”
I chuckled. Told, Ronnie, anything can be done for a price, and I'm lucky to be alive. (Sigh) In mid-90 degree heat, two fellow haz-mat workers and me hammered away at the garbage with rakes and shovels, in search of items soaked with human blood. Got so hot, for vital breaks, co-worker Rob DeLayo and I lay beneath our company Emergency Response vehicle for shade! When I got home to wife Carol, I fell upon our kitchen floor, shivered, no perspiration, legs like Jello, had rake scars on my back, used my soiled work shirt and pants as pillow. Scared, Carol wanted to call 9-1-1, told her I'd survive, she gave me yellow Gatorade.
“Sounds like your company boss sentenced you mightily harsh that day?”
No doubt, Ronnie, will never forget the guy who passed by the roll-off, intent on visiting
someone in the Mercy Hospital. With bloody blue E.R. garments in my gloved hands, he
looked at me and asked, “how much do you get paid for doing such nigger work?”
“What you say back to him, Mr. Chuck?”
The pay's not so hot pal, but its all you can eat once inside the scrumptious vessel.
“Holy Moses!” said Ronnie. He cringed before my serious bitten white-man look. As usual, exhibiting self-knowledge, extraordinary peace, Ronnie tried consoling me, he said, “after listening about bottoms where you been working at Mr. Chuck, maybe I try penance before heading-off to score cocaine next time. Hee-hee.”
Pulled the KIA beside Dunmore's busy Drinker Street and Main corner. Ronnie insisted on walking from there, he reached for my hand, said, “much appreciate ride, trust in Providence, and I'll see you soon at St. Francis K.P. “Providence” you say, Ronnie, why that part of town's at least three miles from Dunmore? Ronnie chuckled, I watched him amble along sidewalk, his color considered evidence of a rebellious and unruly spirit. Shifted into gear, entered a CVS, purchased batteries for Paula's wall clock, lots of exotic spices and bloody whips on my mind.
Relentless passage of Paula's plastic wall clock , it's already 2:30 P.M., New Years Day 2015. Earlier, at 12:30 P.M., after having cut a large case of fresh pears, and afterward cleaned tables and chairs, I completed volunteer shift at St. Francis of Assisi Soup Kitchen. Kept looking for Ronnie to enter the door, he never showed. While sweeping floor, I spoke to volunteer Nick, early 30s, he had bouts with D.U.I.'s and a few community service stints. Nice guy, Nick told me, “sad dudes like Ronnie are day-to-day with crack always knocking.” He told me about his cousin, a Catholic priest, Father Shimsky, 45-years old, one who battled serious addiction and made rehabilitation attempts at Clearbrook, Mountaintop, PA. One day, the priest traveled to Philadelphia, in order to anonymously score crack cocaine. Immediately upon purchase, an undercover cop arrested him. Very next day, the priest suffered a severe tooth infection, was hospitalized, and died. Nick said he's unsure whether or not Father Shimsky ever dined by necessity at St. Francis Assisi Soup Kitchen. To date, neither did I – but every weekday morning, I drive my Scranton School bus #24 past the Kitchen front door. Typically about 12 elementary school kids aboard, they get a little antsy when I “beep” bus horn at Penn Avenue regular-wanderers, those like me, who appear in subjection to something, someone... or other.
Photograph of author, Charles “Chuck” Orloski. He's protected by a dust mask and stands beside the ominous Mercy Hospital roll-off container, interior items negligibly contaminated by human blood.
Charles Orloski lives in Taylor, Pennsylvania., wife Carol, two sons, Dan and Joseph. For twenty two (22) years, he worked as a Project and Emergency Response Supervisor and at age 62, he is currently driving school bus for Scranton School District . Charles's articles and poetry has appeared at Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Hollywood Progressive, and The Greanville Post. He can be reached at ChucktheZek@aol.com
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