An American Tragedy

A Short Story

It was an uncommonly nice February day in the Denver Metro, clear and sunny with the temperature hovering around 70. Steve Upton was tooling along Colfax Ave in in his new Mercedes, top down, shuffling lanes to dodge the traffic typical on this stretch of road with its ridiculously low speed limit. Who fucking drives 35? he thought to himself as he dodged little old ladies in BMW SUVs, Metro buses and the ever-present jaywalking street people that give Colfax its character. Colorado Mills Mall – his destination – was just a few more miles down the road. He couldn’t wait to get to the outlet mall and see if there were any good bargains at the soon to be out of business Sports Authority store.

He wondered aloud how Sports Authority, once one of the biggest sports retailers in the U.S., could have imploded. In the old days Gart Sports was the place to pick up ski gear and other athletic equipment, their ubiquitous commercials all over the airwaves. Gart was no small operation either, having absorbed Texas based Oshman’s in 2001 before being scooped up by Sports Authority in 2003. The combination of the two companies was billed as a “merger of equals.” Yeah, a merger of equally incompetent fiscal strategies resulting in bankruptcy. Leverage is great if you can keep up with the payments.

So much for Sports Authority Field Steve thought to himself. He never liked that name anyway. Steve, like most Denverites, much preferred the Mile High Stadium moniker from the days when stadiums didn’t have stupid names. He was still put off for thinking the Arizona Cardinals played in a college stadium since it was named University of Phoenix Stadium. He always chuckled at the thought of that. What would really be funny would be if the Broncos’stadium accepted the offer from marijuana company Native Roots to acquire the naming rights. Native Roots Stadium didn’t quite have the cachet of Mile High but it sure would have been funny to see how the networks and advertisers handled it.

As Steve approached Kipling Ave the lights went yellow and he slowed for the inevitable stop. Sitting at the light he took note of a panhandler on the median soliciting “donations” from drivers waiting to turn south on Kipling. He scanned the area around the man and noticed the McDonald’s bag, coffee cup and soft drink cup. He wondered, as he always did, how these people could stand begging on the corner and then spend their money on fucking McDonald’s. Shouldn’t they be a bit more discriminating? He recalled the homeless guy he often saw at his local King Soopers. That guy, usually wearing a long black duster no matter the weather, had a funk so bad you could smell him one aisle over. At least he had enough brains to buy ramen noodles and other low priced food items. I’ll bet he doesn’t bust his budget Steve thought.

The left turn signal turned green and as the traffic began to move Steve took another look at the panhandler and, making brief eye contact, he realized that he knew the man. It was Bill Samson, an old high school acquaintance he hadn’t seen since graduation. He wondered what had happened to make Bill fall on such hard times. Cherry Creek High School served an affluent area and Steve couldn’t imagine anyone who graduated from there ending up on the street. Probably drugs he thought. The light turned green and Steve eased away from the intersection.

As he made his way down Colfax the thought of Bill Samson on the street corner really bugged Steve. What happened in his life that put him on that street corner? It had to be drugs. The curiosity was overwhelming and it finally got the best of Steve. He decided to go back and talk to Bill, to see what had happened. He pulled in to the near left turn lane at Simms St and made a U-turn when the light turned green. He rolled back through the Kipling intersection and made another U-turn at Iris St and headed back toward Kipling, making sure to stay left so that he a could position himself in the left turn lane.  He slowed to make sure that he could get to the light soon after it turned red to give him the maximum amount of time to talk to Bill.

As he pulled up to the light Bill snapped to attention, ready to canvas the left turn lane for donations. As he noticed Steve’s car and glanced in the driver’s window it was apparent that he had already recognized Steve from his previous stop at the intersection. He attempted to keep moving along to the other cars In line but Steve blurted out “Hey Bill. It’s me Steve. Remember me from Cherry Creek High?” Bill ignored him and continued to move along the line of cars. Steve thought about getting out of his car but the light turned green so he made a U-turn and pulled in to a Starbucks parking lot.

Getting out of his car Steve wondered what the hell he was doing. Did he really want to walk out to the median and confront Bill? He thought about it for a moment but he really did want to know Bill’s story so he headed to the corner. As he waited on the light he noticed Bill looking his way nervously. Steve managed an unconvincing wave and as the light turned green he made his way over to the center median.

“Hey Bill,” Steve said, “it’s Steve Upton. From Cherry Creek High School. Remember me?”

“Yeah,“ Bill offered, “what do ya want?”

“I just want to talk. I saw you standing there and I recognized you from the old days and I just wondered how you were doing. I mean, obviously not so good to be standing here on Colfax Ave, am I right?”

“Just a rough stretch, no concern of yours.”

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” said Steve motioning back towards the Starbucks.

“Well, it’s about quitting time anyway so I guess that’s okay. Give me a few minutes and I’ll meet you over there.”

Steve suppressed a smile wondering what kind of schedule a panhandler might possibly keep. Did Bill have a shift or some such nonsense? He noticed the light was good and made his way over to Starbucks.

Fifteen minutes later Steve and Bill were facing each other over a small table, lattes in hand. I just spent $13 on coffee Steve thought, amazed that so many people thought that was somehow normal. He thought about the Folgers Coffee Singles he used at home – $8.50 for a box of 38. He was sure the latte sipping millennials would not appreciate that but he liked his coffee black and not overwhelmingly strong. He suspected that Starbucks brewed their coffee so thick and acidic because the multitude of added ingredients tempered the strength and bitterness. Those unfortunate enough to order a black coffee were in for a less than satisfactory experience in his mind. It was just as well since Steve didn’t frequent the establishment, only indulging a few times a year.

Fuck Starbucks he thought to himself as he stared at the McDonald’s across the street. Fuck McDonald’s too.

Turning to Bill he quickly got to the point.

“So, how have you been? What have you been up to? I lost track of you after high school. What happened? Did you get caught up in drugs? I know you were one of the wild ones, a pot smoker they said. I hear that’s a gateway drug that will get you hooked on harder drugs. Is that what happened?

“No,” Bill replied. “I actually graduated at the top of the class remember?”

“Oh, yea.” Steve had forgotten that Bill was a good student. He was one of the few classmates who never seemed to carry books or homework with him as they boarded the bus each afternoon. He had once asked Bill when he did the homework that was almost always assigned by at least one teacher. “In homeroom,” had been his response. Steve thought it incredible that someone would wait until right before the start of classes to do the previous day’s homework. That didn’t leave much of a margin for error, but then he did graduate with honors. All the more troubling that he was now relegated to standing on the corner with his hand out.

“So, after high school?”

“I went to UT on a scholarship and got my engineering degree, computer sciences.”

“UT, huh? Lots of partying on 6th Street I hear.”

“Oh yeah. It gets pretty rowdy there most weekend nights.”

“Probably lots of drugs too?”

“Shit yes. Almost anything you want. Weed, coke, speed, mollies, heroin.”

“So you were smokin’ weed then?”

“Sure. Who wasn’t?”

“And then you started doing the hard stuff? Probably got hooked on something and washed out?”

“Not at all. I told you I got my degree. In fact, I was in the top of my class.”

“Oh, right. Then what?”

“I came back to Denver and got a job in the Denver Tech Center.”

“How was that?”

“Good outfit. Lots of people my age, unlimited budget, plenty of tech toys to play with. Working hard and playing hard. Lots of party people in the IT business.”

“Probably doing a lot of drugs I imagine.”

“You bet. Coke and Ecstasy were really popular.”

“So, you started doing those drugs and your job performance started to suffer? Maybe got fired?”

“Not at all. I progressed rapidly, got several promotions in the first 18 months and eventually became the department manager.”

“So, everything was good?”

“Fantastic. Then I met someone.”

“A girl? Did she smoke pot?”

“Yes, a very nice gal. She smoked a little weed now and then but not much.”

“Preferred the harder stuff?”

“What?”

“She probably liked the hard stuff, got you to start doing it too?”

“No, no, not at all. She was a sweetheart and we got along great.”

“Was?”

“We drifted apart I guess and one day she asked me for a divorce. She didn’t actually ask, rather left me a note.”

“That had to hurt.”

“It did.”

“I bet you smoked a lot of weed dealing with that.”

“You bet I did. In fact, it took a bit more than that to deal with the collapse of my marriage.”

“The hard stuff?”

“Yes.”

“I knew it.”

“Knew what?”

“Marijuana, the gateway drug. You get stoned so much that one day it isn’t enough and you need something harder. Your marriage fails, you’re depressed, you take that next step and start doing the hard drugs. Was it the coke? Heroin? Maybe meth? I hear that shit is nasty.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about Steve. I don’t do hard drugs.”

“You said you started doing the hard stuff. I assumed that was drugs. I figured that weed was the gateway and you finally succumbed to the call of the siren, started doing the hard drugs. Lost your marriage, lost your job, ended up on the street.”

“You got it all wrong man. It isn’t because of drugs that I ended up on the street.”

“No? Then what? What in the world could have caused you to spiral out of control and end up on Colfax Avenue hitting up drivers for spare change?”

“I started drinking.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, I started getting shitfaced every day and eventually it all fell apart. I never thought that alcohol could become such a problem. You have all of these politicians and conservatives demonizing weed and drugs in general and they never seem to say anything about alcohol. Alcohol, a drug itself. A depressant. So prevalent in our society, responsible for so much pain and suffering, yet never vilified by the mainstream even though it does so much damage. Our own Attorney General suggests that good people don’t smoke marijuana but you never see statistics regarding marijuana’s involvement in domestic violence, traffic fatalities, crime. When’s the last time you heard about some pot crazed maniac running over somebody or killing people?”

“Well, never. I guess I hadn’t thought of that way.”

“That’s because alcohol is mainstream and the big beverage companies have the politicians in their back pockets. Like tobacco. How many people do you thing tobacco kills each year? How much does it cost in health care? How much does it jack insurance premiums for everyone else? Why doesn’t the government just ban it outright? Make it illegal? I’ll tell you why. It is a lucrative crop for many farmers, especially in the conservative South. Some conservative asshat politician wondered aloud why we should jeopardize our economy today to save our planet for the future. These same people wonder why we should take away tobacco farmer’s livelihoods for the sake of the health and well-being of our society. That’s the world we live in Steve. Politicians ignore the obvious. They turn a blind eye to alcohol abuse and the dangers of tobacco and deflect to a harmless weed that happens to hurt nobody.”

“Oh, okay. I guess everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Hey look at the time, I’ve really got to run. Good to see you and I hope you will be able to get your life back together. Sorry about your divorce.”

“Oh, so quick?”

“Yes. Sorry. There are some things I need to take care of before it gets too late.”

“Okay. Good to see you. What do you do by the way?”

“Me?”

“Yes. What kind of business are you involved in these days. From the looks of that Mercedes you’re driving you seem to be doing well.”

“Uh, yes. I own a distribution company and I dabble in politics.”

“What do you distribute?”

“Alcoholic beverages. And tobacco products.”

“Oh.”

“Yea.”

“And you dabble in politics you say?”

“Um, yes. I’m a state senator. Republican.”

“I see. Well, good to talk you. I’m off to the package store before it gets too late. I need to grab a bottle and get over to the park before all of the good spots are taken.”

And with that he was off. Steve finished his latte and headed out to his car. He backed out and pulled to the edge of the drive, glancing down Colfax to make sure he was clear to pull out. As he eased out of the drive he suddenly punched the gas and burned rubber as he headed off toward the sunset.

“Fucking pothead!”