October 27, 2017
I woke in between chairs on the ground of the truck-driver lounge at the Pilot Travel Center in East St. Louis, IL. I shimmied out of my sleeping bag and packed it away. The lights flickered on at about 6 am. I rested for a short while longer. When I did rise, I gave the man in a chair nearby quite the fright. I found this tremendously amusing, and giggled to myself.
I stepped out of the lounge and in to the restroom. I washed up, and re-braided my hair. After determining that I was quite presentable enough, I returned to the adjacent Subway/Taco Bell where I had spent part of the previous night. I purchased coffee and sat myself in a corner booth, sign visible. I scoped out the patrons, trying to sense what sort of people they were.
A man in slacks, a pressed shirt, and a stance of authority walked over and inquired of my situation. He had some sort of pin on his collar. He was affiliated with the Pilot Transit Center. He suggested the Burger King across the street, as a good place to hitch a ride. He asked if I was good on coffee and food, then he left.
I went across the street to find the Burger King he spoke of.
What Burger King? I did see World Wide Technology Raceway. It was just like one big giant empty lot. There would be plenty of space for someone to pull over. There was also a clear shot to I-70.
I stood for a while. No luck.
Then, a well-groomed male around my age pulled up and offered me a lift. He said he could not take me far. Just over the Mississippi River, to the Missouri side of St. Louis. I was anxious to move. I accepted the ride.
He took me over McKinley Bridge and we parked at a BP gas station.
He turned off the engine and turned his body towards me. “Do you do favors?” he asked.”
“I could throw down some money.”
“Be safe.” And he left.
The neighborhood felt rough and raw. After being declined any use of a public restroom in either of the proximal fuel stations, I found an abandoned lot filled with shopping carts and trash and clothing and needles, and relieved myself in the grass behind a tree.
I returned to the BP station, walked the sidewalk down to the on-ramp, and then back up again. I was trying to get my bearings, a feel for the potential rides, and where I should position myself.
A man filling up his car with gas recognized me from when I was posted up outside of the Pilot Transit Center. He told me that the last place I was at was much safer than the one I was in now. That I was now “…in the ghetto.” He told me that people were killed there every day.
He suggested I move. He told me to walk straight until I can’t anymore, then to turn left and walk for a couple of blocks until I get to a truck stop. I would be better off there. He offered me money. I declined. I thanked him for the information and set off.
As I walked towards the next fuel station I considered what had happened. I should not have taken that last hitch. That man did not care about helping me out, he had his own agenda. It certainly would not have hurt to have done some research on the most dangerous cities in the US.
I reached the Energy Express Travel Center, with a Phillips 66. The security guard at the door looked me up and down as I walked in and perused the aisles. Nothing I wanted anyway.
I walked over to where the semi-trucks were fueling up. The security guard then walked over, and told me that I needed to leave. I was not allowed there.
Discouraged, I headed across the street to another BP fuel station. A hand reached out from a nearby car window, palm up, in presentation of a grape Now and Later. I accepted. There were two people inside, a man and a woman. The woman was about my age, the man was much older.
“Where ya headed”
“West. The other gas station just kicked me out.”
“We can take you up the street a little further to Love’s.”
“Oh, thank you!”. I loaded myself into the backseat.
They drove me in to the back entrance of Love’s Travel Stop, where the truck drivers pull in and out. They told me that I should be fine if I stay there, out of sight of any employees. They told me that they don’t like white people and that this was why I was kicked out of the last place. People assumed I was a “Lot Lizard”, prostitutes that hang around truck stops. People assumed I was up to no good.
I thanked them. They gave me their cell-phone number. They said that they had some things to take care of, but that after that they were heading west. If I still needed a ride later, I could call them. With that, they drove off, further in to the truck-stop.
They returned shortly after, saying that they had found me a ride. I got back in the car and they drove me to where a red semi-truck was parked. I got in and spoke with the man.
He seemed like an alright guy. He was heading to Memphis, Tennessee. Though I wanted nothing more than to move, I did not want to head south along I-55, I wanted to catch I-70 west. I also did not want to repeat the same mistake. Would Memphis be just as rough as St. Louis? I told him that I needed to head west. He suggested I try inside.
I went inside the travel stop from the back entrance. This was a mistake. Security told me to leave the property.
I resigned myself to the adjacent McDonald’s and brooded over a coffee and my notebook.
A man walked over, “are you workin’, girl?”
It took me a moment to process what he was asking.
He walked off.
I felt uneasy. I pulled out the crumpled piece of paper that had the couples number. It was torn. I searched my bag for the missing piece and held it up. I could make out the number. I called, but there was no answer. I followed with a text and they called back. They said that they would be travelling about 100 miles west later that afternoon. They said I could ride around with them until then. They would pick me up in 15-20 minutes at the McDonald’s.
I waited. My mind began to run. I feel on edge. I want to get out of here. It has been 30 minutes. I hope they come through. It is still early. I just need to drink my coffee and chill. It’s rough out there. I am so fucking privileged and naive.
I reflected on the conversation I had just had with the driver heading to Memphis. He said that most guys that pick me up think I will “put out”. He said that often people will pick people up and rape them and drop them off on the side of the road. This was scary to hear from a truck-driver. Maybe I should be scared. Maybe it was the neighborhood. Maybe he was trying to get a rise out of me.
I decided that if I had not heard from them by 1 pm, I had to start looking for a ride.
A man walked over to the plastic booth were I waited.
“Are you alright? Have you eaten?”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Are you sure.”
“Take this anyway” he said, presenting me with a wad of bills.
I thanked him and he returned to his seat.
Those seven crumpled dollar bills may as well have been a giant hug. I was such a bundle of mixed emotions. It had been over an hour.
I texted Mariah and Bryan. They sent a reply:
“We’re on our way we won’t leave you hun. We got stuck behind a accident baby girl I’m sorry.”
Maybe it was relief, but something in me made a heavy shift. I left my coffee at the table. I walked quickly to the restroom. I let the door shut behind me, and I cried. After nearly a minute of staring in the mirror, looking for answers to unknown questions, trying to mentally will myself in to a position of strength, I splashed water on my face. I slowly pressed cupped hands of paper towel against my cheeks, and my eyes, and my lips. I applied tender pressure. I would be alright. I would be one tough cookie when I am done with myself.
I returned to my coffee and soon Mariah and Bryan pulled up. I again loaded myself in to the backseat. They told me that they still had some things to do before they headed west. I did not ask questions. That was perfectly fine with me. I felt safe.
We drove to another gas station. Mariah and I waited in the car. Bryan spoke to people filling up their fuel tanks. He told them that he had just spent 22 years in prison, and that Mariah and I were his daughters, and that we just needed a little fuel to get home. This was how they put gas in their car. They often got a couple extra bucks as well.
After that, we pulled in to an alley. Bryan asked “do you get high?”
“I smoke marijuana.”
There was a pause.
They asked if I minded if they got high. I asked if they would still be able to operate a vehicle. They said yes. Mariah mumbled something about feeling guilty doing it in front of me. She fetched a water bottle from the trunk and returned to the passenger seat. They proceeded to do something with the water and the liquid and the needles. They took turns injecting one another.
Their demeanor did not change much. Maybe they seemed a bit heavier in their bodies, like their nerves were coated in molasses, but they were functional.
Then off we drove. ‘Round and ’round the neighborhood we went. Gas station to gas station. I learned that this is how they spotted me before. They had seen me, moving from gas station to gas station as well. They could tell I needed help, that I was not from around here. I learned that the area I had been dropped off in, the streets I had been walking up and down, were called “the stroll”. I had never heard this term before. It was a place where prostitutes solicit customers.
I learned that Bryan had in fact been in prison. He was sentenced to 20 years for murder. His partner on the streets had been shot and killed. He had avenged his partner. After being released, he took Mariah under his wing. She had been living with an abusive boyfriend who forced her to stand on the street corners barefoot to beg for money. Bryan had terminal cancer, and was planning to leave all he had to Mariah. Their hearts were beautiful. Heroine is heartbreaking.
They told me that most of the dealers around there were kids. Dad’s get caught and thrown in prison, kids have to step up to support mom.
In between their business of hustling money, making drug deals, and shooting up, we sang along to music, chain smoked cigarettes, and chewed on countless Now and Laters. They even took it upon themselves to call a buddy and procure a little marijuana for me.
I was dizzy on sugar and nicotine. Hours passed and night was falling and there was only now talk of heading west. We discussed where they might drop me off. It would certainly be cold in the night, below freezing. There were whispers in the front seat. Then they spoke up. After hours in a car together, they trusted me. They invited me back to stay with them, at Bryan’s mom’s house. I could have the couch. I was so thankful.
I was to be presented as Mariah’s cousin, just so that there were not any questions.
The home was very sweet. There was a large excitable dog. We all had a dinner together of veggies and bread and fried cabbage and potatoes. I slept safe and warm, on the couch.