12-21-2011, 05:33 PM
Lost in thought as well as where his feet took him, Criss found himself in an unfamiliar part of Las Vegas. At least to him it was unfamiliar. The entire neighborhood, if such a friendly term could be applied to the run-down collection of man-made structures, was a concrete and cinderblock wasteland populated by those unfortunate souls who had given up hope of a better life. Broken bottles, dog turds, food wrappers, fast food containers and cigarrette butts littered the cracked sidewalks lining the graffitti-streaked walls. Some bore the menacing symbols of local gangs in the area, while the rest was sheer defacement. Police sirens wailed in the distance, and the air reeked of rotting garbage and human urine.
Broke, hungry and in need of a bathroom, Criss kept walking on, searching for any sign of someone to help him. He made futile efforts to ask passersby for assistance, but they just brushed by him, turning their faces away from him, avoiding him. They don't know who I am, he thought. They think I'm just another homeless bum on the street. If I came to them dressed as Criss Angel, I bet they'd be all over me like a cheap suit!
Hoping against hope, Criss entered the first liquor store he saw. He approached the owner standing behind the counter. "Excuse me, sir," he said politely, "but could you help me? I need--"
The owner did not give him a chance to explain, but pulled out a Louisville Slugger from under the counter. "Beat it, you bum!" he snarled, brandishing the bat menacingly. "I don't give out handouts!"
Criss raised his hands helplessly. "But, I just--"
The owner raised the bat to strike. "I said beat it!"
Criss made a hasty retreat out the door, frightened and bewildered. My God! What the hell happened to charity and good will? he wondered. America always bragged about being a Christian nation. Why the hell don't they practice what they preach?
His stomach growled, his bladder kept tugging at him, threatening to burst. His feet ached from walking in the worn-out shoes that had been part of his costume for the movie. "At least it's not raining," he said to cheer himself up.
In a vacant lot not too far away, Criss saw a group of homeless men huddled around a tiny campfire burning in an cheap aluminum roasting pan. They seemed to be cooking something in a flimsy metal saucepan; someone in the group stirred whatever was in it with a broken wooden spoon. From the discarded cans lying to one side, he could tell they were cooking pork and beans. Hungry and still shaken from the encounter at the liquor store, Criss approached the group hesitantly.
"Hey, guys," he greeted them timidly.
The four men looked up at him, more out of curiosity than resentment. "Uh, you know where I can find a restroom around here?" Criss asked. "I really need to go."
One of the men, a fat black man in dirty winter overalls, pointed to a far wall lined with scraggly shrubbery, the only greenery Criss had seen since his arrival. "Down the path there, first bush to your left," he directed him.
His companions laughed. "Don't use the second bush," another man in a faded camoflage jacket said. "That's the ladies' room!"
More laughter. Criss laughed with them, nervously going along with the joke, then turned and walked down the worn, narrow goat path leading to the shrubbery-lined cinderblock wall that reeked even worse of urine. He ducked behind the bush, undid his trouser fly and emptied his swollen bladder against the cinderblock wall, nearly collapsing with relief as he did so. He felt no shame in it. He was a guy after all; he had relieved himself outdoors numerous times before, once at a golf course while taping an episode of MindFreak. He remembered the chagrined look on Dave Baram's face as he did so, an image that cheered him a little in his present predicament.
With one problem solved, he focused on his next bodily need: food. He had had nothing but a breakfast shake that morning and the bottle of water during his break from filming, and he was starving. Still, he still felt a twinge of guilt about asking four homeless men to share their meager rations with him, a man of wealth and means, even though that wealth and means were still back at the Luxor and he had no access to it. But the foursome around the campfire welcomed him into their circle, pulling up an extra milk crate for him to sit on. "Don't often we get company," the big black man said jovially.
Criss sat down on the crate, grateful for this small hospitality offered to him. "Thanks," he said simply but sincerely.
A scoop of pork and beans swimming on a chipped plastic plate that he guessed had been salvaged from a dumpster somewhere was passed to him, accompanied by a metal spoon with sharp, jagged edges, presumably from being dropped into a garbage disposal. Criss accepted the poor meal graciously and began to eat, taking care not to lacerate his mouth with the spoon.
The man in the camo jacket turned to him. "So, what's your name?" he asked.
The men snorted derisively. "Oh, yeah, right!" the camoflage man sneered, twirling his finger around the side of his head. "Criss Angel! You ain't no Criss Angel."
"But I am, really!" Criss protested.
The four men laughed. The big black man pulled out a tattered box of playing cards from his pocket and handed it to him. "Here!" he said. "You think you're Criss Angel? Prove it!"
Criss set aside his plate of beans and took out the cards. They were smudged, creased and worn from years of handling, but they were still usable. He fanned them out in his hands, gathered them up again smoothly, flicked them from one palm to the other, then tossed one into the air and deftly caught it. The four men were impressed. "Pretty cool," said the big black man.
The cards fanned out again. "Pick one," Criss instructed him.
The big black man hesitated at first. "Go ahead, Burt!" the camoflage man encouraged him. "Go for it!"
Burt drew a card and hid it from Criss. "Now, place it back in the deck," Criss told him.
The card was replaced in the fanned-out deck. Criss shuffled them again, then asked, "What was the card you drew?"
"King of Spades," Burt replied.
Criss handed Burt the deck of cards. "Can you find it in the deck?" he asked.
Burt shuffled the whole deck, but could not find the King of Spades. "What the hell happened to it?" he asked, puzzled.
"Well, maybe it disappeared," Criss surmised, "or maybe--" he reached behind Burt's back. "--it's right here." He pulled out a card, the King of Spades, from behind Burt.
Burt was amazed. So were the other three, who laughed and applauded as Criss held out the card before them, illuminated by the faint glow of the tiny fire. "Is that your card?" he asked Burt.
Burt laughed and nodded. "Yeah, that's it, that's my card!" he said, still chuckling. "Yeah, you him! You him! Yeah, you him all right! Yeah, you him!"
He extended a beefy hand to Criss. "Name's Burt," he said. "That's Dennis over there in the camo."
Dennis waved. "That old guy there is Marvin," Burt continued.
"Hey, Marvin," Criss greeted him.
Marvin simply sat there, gaping at him. "You gotta yell," Burt said, "he's hard of hearin'."
"Hey, Marvin!" Criss repeated loudly.
"Yeah?" Marvin spoke through toothless gums. "Whaddya want?"
"I just wanted to say hi!" Criss said, leaning closer to the old man.
Suddenly, Marvin understood. "Oh, okay. Hi."
"And the guy in the blue?" Burt continued. "Well, we just call him Buddy. Don't know his real name."
"Well, why don't you just ask him?" Criss suggested.
"Buddy's been livin' out on the street so long, he forgot," Burt explained. "He's bit of a mental case. Don't know much about him, except he done time in jail. For what I dunno."
Criss looked at Buddy with a mixture of pity and trepadition. "Buddy?" Criss called out to him tenatively.
Buddy stared at him with big blue eyes and a wide, maniacal grin, a Cheshire Cat grin. It intimidated Criss even more. "Do some more!" Buddy demanded.
"Do some more what?" Criss asked.
"Do some more magic with them cards!"
"Buddy, let the man eat, okay?" Burt insisted.
"(Bleep) you, man!" Buddy snapped, rising to his feet. "I wanna see some more magic with them cards!"
"Buddy, chill out, willya?" Dennis pleaded. "We'll do some more tricks later. Now, sit down and eat!"
Buddy was not so easily placated. He tossed the pot of beans across the lot and lunged at Criss. "I wanna see more (bleeping) magic with those (bleeping) cards, mother(bleeper)!" he screamed.
Burt and Dennis rose to subdue him. Buddy took a clumsy swing at Criss. Criss instinctively recalled his martial arts training; he grabbed Buddy's arm, twisted it around his back and pinioned it behind him. Buddy struggled to free himself, but Criss was too strong for him.
"Now," Criss said calmly, "you gonna behave yourself, Buddy?"
"Leggo!" Buddy sputtered angrily. "Leggo of me!"
"You'd better simmer down, Buddy," Burt admonished him, "or Criss here's gonna break your arm off."
Buddy fought back furiously, but could not break Criss' hold on him. Finally, exhausted, he crumpled to the ground, panting. Only then did Criss release him. "Now you just simmer down, there," Burt ordered Buddy. "Can't have you attacking people like that. You'll end up back in the slammer, you know that?"
Buddy curled up in a ball on the concrete. "No! Not the slammer!" he whimpered. "I don't wanna go back to the slammer! Don't let them take me back there!"
Criss wondered what horror Buddy had endured during his imprisoment: Beatings from the other inmates--or the guards? Or sexual assault? There were rumors of such brutality behind bars. Or had there been something far worse, some inexplicable trauma that had pushed him over the edge, reducing him to the pathetic wreck lying on the concrete? Whatever it was, the damage was done; Criss could not help but believe Buddy was beyond all hope of redemption.
Burt went to retrieve the bean pot. "Looks like no one's gettin' dinner tonight," he said ruefully. "That was our last can of beans."
Dennis looked down the street. Suddenly, he brightened. "Hey!" he shouted. "It's the shelter van! We can get somethin' to eat there!" He whistled through his fingers and flagged down the jitney bus rolling down the street. "Yo! Over here! Hey! Over here!"
Burt sighed. "Shelter van, huh," he grunted. "Probably Sanctuary trolling for homeless people."
"Sanctuary?" Criss echoed. "Sanctuary Shelter for the Homeless?"
"Oh, you heard about that?" Burt deadpanned.
"Yeah, I did an episode for MindFreak there once," Criss told him.
A sudden flash of inspiration came to him. He knew the minister who ran the place, Pastor Bob Beaman. Surely he could help him get back to the Luxor, or at least let him use the phone. For the first time that day, things were turning out for the better.
The jitney slowed to a stop at the curb. Dennis waved his companions. "C'mon, guys!" he shouted. "Let's go!"
Criss dashed for the bus and clambered in, to the surprise of the driver, a middle-aged black woman with thick dreadlocks dangling from her head. Dennis dashed back to help Marvin up onto his feet while Burt trudged reluctantly to the curb. Buddy still remained curled up on the concrete, unaware of what was happening. We just can't leave him out there, Criss thought. We just can't.
He turned to the driver. "Hey, hold on a minute," he told her. "I'll be right back."
Criss dashed out of the bus and toward the cowering figure on the concrete. "Come on, Buddy," Criss cajoled. "We're gonna get something to eat, and you'll have a nice warm place to sleep."
"I'm not going back to the slammer!" Buddy wailed.
"No, you're not going back to the slammer, Buddy," Criss assured him. "You're going somewhere where they'll take care of you. You won't have to live out on the street anymore. You're going home, Buddy. Home."
Buddy looked up at Criss, his tears leaving streaks in the dirt on his face. "Home?"
Criss nodded eagerly. "Home."
Buddy uncurled himself and struggled to his feet with Criss' aid. "Now, come on," Criss said, guiding him, "the bus is waiting."
The two made their way to the jitney's open doors. "Is this the bus home?" Buddy asked.
The driver, accustomed to transients' bizarre behaviors, humored him. "Yeah, this is the bus home," she replied.
Buddy stumbled up the steps into the jitney and took a seat. Criss sat opposite; as much as he wanted to help him, he could not stand the man's stench. Marvin and Burt sat adjacent to them, the latter less than thrilled to be on board.
The doors of the bus folded shut. The driver shifted it into gear and drove off toward the shelter. Criss stared idly out the window. Everywhere he looked he saw poverty and despair. There seemed to be a pawn shop on every corner, the only legitamate business thriving in the neighborhood. He saw groups of young men congregating on steps, in alleys, or streetcorners, identifying themselves to each other with arcane handsigns--Criss recognized them as gang signs. Two gang members were engaged in a shoving match; the bus passed them by before he could discern the reason for their dispute. He heard more police sirens, but couldn't see a single police car anywhere.
There are two sides of Las Vegas, he recalled Father Stefan, pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church tell him once. The side you see, and the side you don't see. The side you see is the one the travel brochures show you, the glitz and glamor, the luxury and wealth. The other side is one I see every day, the one of poverty and violence, of gangs and drug dealers and prostitutes. That is the side no one sees, or even wants to know exists.
Well, it existed all right, Criss acknowledged. He knew it existed even before all this happened. He had seen it himself when he taped his show at Sanctuary. But he had seen it through the controlled environment of the shelter, not out on the streets. This was not the image of homelessness he portrayed in his episode of MindFreak, where everyone got a free meal and a bed to sleep in, and attended services on Sunday or classes in the evening. This was poverty in the raw, the recession at its worst: no camera could capture the misery he saw passing before his eyes as he rode to the shelter. For all of his talent as a magician, he could not make it disappear.