By Curtis Price
Charlene’s been dead for a couple weeks, I just found out. When I heard the news, I thought “Well, Victoria’s Secret at the Mall will finally turn a profit this year.” Because, Charlene was a “booster,” a professional shoplifter, a practitioner of the fine arts of the five-finger discount, one of Huntsville’s finest.
She was the first person I knew who died of COVID-19 here; for me, her death supplied a face to associate with the flow of anonymous numbers. But truthfully, I can’t say I really knew Charlene; more accurately it was more the case that I knew OF her because our paths crossed only once. All the rest of my knowledge, consisting of street-grapevine anecdotes – Charlene’s been busted again, Charlene’s sleeping on so-and-so’s couch –I gleaned second-hand. I recall Charlene (from the passenger seat view to the back) during our one encounter as an obese, dark-complexioned Black female in her late 40s, with a flashing, hawk-like glint and wearing a slightly askew wig – perhaps from stuffing Tylenol bottles from the Dollar General inside?- who needed a ride from a friend to Social Services.
Now Charlene had the habit of a heavy crack user, for which there is never enough money because, unlike heroin users, a crack habit has to be fed not once but many times a day, reaping a high lasting little over five minutes yet a high that relentlessly stokes the need for more.. The wolf was always at Charlene’s door, howling, insatiable, its appetite never fully slaked.
I can’t imagine Charlene having much capability of self-reflection. Finely tuned to the external stimuli of the eternal hustle, she had little time or inclination to stay still and look inward. Even in her many stints at Wetumpka, the women’s prison outside Montgomery, I can instead see her playing cards on the tier or getting dragged into endless convict bulllshit of the “he-said-she-said” variety. She wasn’t the type to go to church, confessing some real or imagined sin, although she believed surely there was an omnipresent God watching her every move, the celestial equivalent of a Walmart security camera.
From a structural viewpoint, Charlene’s life can be easily analyzed. She was a poor Black woman in the Deep South in an advanced capitalist democracy, born in trouble and died in trouble. But that in itself won’t tell us much. Just as Sartre said, Flaubert was a bourgeoisie, but not every bourgeoisie was a Flaubert, the same can be said of Charlene: she was poor, Black and female – but not every poor Black female in the Deep South becomes a hard-core street junkie. We can’t glean her subjectivity from structure, why she became what she became and not ending up, for instance, a cashier at the Thrifty Mart churching every Sunday. Who can truly grasp the vagarities of individual consciousness that makes someone “this” and not “that”?
In the South, COVID-19 acts as a great un-equalizer. “Body by Biscuits” fills caskets. The Stroke Belt is becoming a noose. (1) The South’s concentration of pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and asthma ensures that COVD-19 disproportionately affects the poor and working class. In Alabama, African-Americans, who make up one-third of the population, make up nearly half of COVID-19 cases. These figures are mirrored in Mississippi, Arkansas and elsewhere. A boosting street hustler is the last person capable of maintaining social distance.
So she’s dead now, just another number in the ranks of the felled, a hole in others’ memories that will be soon forgotten and even more quickly filled, a race that’s finally been run. But maybe, just maybe, Charlene’s behind those Pearly Gates of the Great Beyond trying to hawk St. Peter a pair of boosted angel wings, “5 on 10” on the “up and up.”
1. The Stroke Belt, the name given in public health circles to the swath of counties in the Deep South where incidences of stroke are much higher than the rest of the country.