The Carpool Lane

Today we picked up this girl for carpool. I was asking people if they were going to the city and she came up to me, asked if I needed some help. I think she thought I was panhandling. I was like, no, ya know, it's OK, I'm just looking for someone to carpool with me. (She obviously needed a hell of a lot more help than I did , but I thought it was sweet of her to offer). I invited her to come with us. She said she would, she had nothing better to do. She seemed excited, like we were gonna be her new friends. I felt guilty because I already understood why that could never happen.

I never asked her name. She told us she was 17 and that she had AWOLed from this drug rehab almost a year ago. She was on the run. We asked her what drugs she'd been using. She said crystal, crack, crank, hair-oh-inn, pretty much anything and everything."I do weed, acid, shrooms ... "

We asked her who checked her in to the rehab. She said the court, she was court mandated. She was like, " Yeah, the police would always be comin' over to are house and we'd all be beamin'. I mean, our eyes would be all glossy ... Finally they just took me away."

I thought she probably grew up in a trailer, not a house, but it didn't make any difference anyway. She had this thick twang to her voice, sounded like she was from either Texas or Redding. She said Sacramento.

She said she'd been staying mostly outside, "as you could pretty much tell." I didn't think you could, not compared to most of the kids I know who are spoiled brats from suburbia who are just too lazy to take care of themselves. All those kids are much dirtier than they need to be, because everybody knows there are places you can go to take a shower or wash your clothes. Most of them are out there like that by choice, but she was different. I didn't think it was something she had sought out, I don't think it felt free to her, I don't think it was something she wanted.

She didn't look all that homeless in her bell-bottomed blue jeans and clean white sweatshirt. She had long ringletted blond hair pulled back and pale white skin disrupted by random sores, which was more or less the only thing that gave it away. Most of all she looked young, like the kids I used to go to school with. It's scary when you realize that it could just as easily have been you, and even scarier when you realize that it might as well have been, or that it is.

We asked her how she made money. She said she sold drugs when she didn't smoke them all first. " Besides that, I hustle. I mean I don't like it, it's not enjoyable, but what else am I gonna do?" I thought that was a good question. I couldn't answer it .

We were listening to Stevie Nicks and she was singing along in the back seat. We were surprised she knew the words. "That's my music right there," she told us. "I know who she is, she's got this band goin'. I don't remember what they are called, though." Then she asked us if we had any Tom Petty. We told her no. " I think he's just the greatest."

I wished I could have played her that American Girl song. I wished I could have done something for her, but I don't have any Tom Petty. I used to when I was younger, but not anymore.

She said, " I just got to the point where I don't care about my life anymore ... I only care about one person." I wanted to ask who, but I didn't. "I've OD'd a million times but somebody always calls an ambulance, something always happens and they won't let me die." She laughed after she said that. I thought to myself that I knew how that felt, but I think now that I don't, not really. I have wanted to die, I have felt alone, but there's always been a place somewhere inside me that wants to live. I think that was the difference between us.

When we got to the city she didn't want to get out of the car. We gave her 35 cents for the bus and dropped her off at Mission and Second. "This is you, you can get out here." She didn't move.

"We gotta go, you gotta get out." She didn't move. She had these big puppy dog eyes and I knew she didn't want to leave, she didn't want to go to 16th, but she would, and she did, and when she finally got out, I felt like I had just abandoned my child.

I thought about asking her to come along with me as I went about my day. I knew that she would have accepted graciously, but I didn't ask. I don't know why. I don't know why I invited her to come with us in the first place. I think maybe I just wanted her to be with us, if only for 15 minutes. I wanted her to be safe, and to be with people who didn't want anything from her. Beyond that there was nothing I could do. You come to a point, after hearing this story enough times from too many different mouths, when you realize that's the truth -- there's nothing you can do, and she'll be dead by the time she's 20, if she's lucky. That's not apathy; it's realism.

The worst thing about it was that she was a really sweet kid, and still so innocent despite everything she was going through. I wanted to hold her, to tell her that everything would be OK, that things always get better when you think they can't get any worse. But that isn't always true. And we don't touch each other like that, we don't know each other like that, we don't communicate like that, and the last thing this girl needed was to be lied to again.

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