It's crowded at the Duane Reade today, so crowded that a guy with glasses and dreadlocks is getting pissy with the pharmacist, an older South Asian man. "You've been walking back and forth back there ignoring me for ten minutes, am I going to have to come over that counter, or are you going to talk to me?" The guy waiting behind the dreadlocked guy is white, in his sixties, and outfitted with every kind of medical contrivance you can think of -- back brace, hearing aid, cane, coke-bottle glasses, some kind of truss worn over the shorts, which are belted right under the nipples, and support hose. Where do guys like this come from, and why are they always in front of you at Duane Reade? "I need some assistance," he says, right over the head of dreadlock guy, like he's not even there. "Excuse me."
Fortunately, I'm in line at the drop-off register. Unfortunately, there's a crowd of people in front of me -- two girls chatting away as one of them slowly digs for exact change, then a woman with a baggie full of empty prescription bottles, and she needs this one but not that one, no wait, maybe she needs that one...
The junkie in front of me is getting anxious. She's young, twenty maybe, blond, with scabby lips and cut-up arms and dirty calves peeking out from under her ragged shorts. She has a red heart tattooed on the side of her neck. She half-turns, looking over her shoulder, and I smile at her. She smiles back. I don't know if she recognizes me, remembers that I've spoken to her a few times, given her the address of the shelter. For a while her cardboard sign said PREGNANT. It doesn't say that anymore.
Finally, her turn. She puts a single dollar on the counter. "One?" asks the clerk, a young guy with red eyes.
"Yeah," she says. "I'm in a hurry. My dog's tied up outside."
He puts a syringe into a prescription bag, hands it to her.
"Keep the change," she says, whisking past me. "My dog."
He rings it up, seventy-five cents. Takes out the quarter and puts it aside. She will probably come back for it later.
My turn. I hand the guy my prescription for birth control. No PREGNANT sign for me, thanks. He has me write down my information -- name, date of birth -- on the envelope I'll pick up later. "It'll be a while," he tells me. "We're busy."
Outside, the girl is curled into a ball, crouching behind a skinny dog roped to a sprinkler on the sidewalk. She's busy, too.
The sidewalk is overlit with sun, it's like it's so bright that nobody can see -- of the hundred people currently walking by on the south side of Fourteenth Street in the middle of a summer Sunday, nobody seems to notice as she prepares to take her medicine. Just a spoonful of sugar, and a seventy-five cent needle. And she goes down.