Data Points: Stories of the In-Between #1

I want to clarify something before I begin.

While I’m a third party for the following accounts, these are my stories as well. Think shared accounts with fluctuating protagonists and narrators. I realize this may complicate things, perhaps erasing some trust, a dividing line between writer and subject. I realize this may read as a cypher or an attempt to be purposefully obtuse. It’s a little bit of both. I hope it makes sense in the end.

In my decade as an independent artist, I’ve met the same people many times over. I’ve seen the same story told with different names. Barflies, poets, musicians, actors shaking out the past and its cobwebs. A thousand different variations of a call for representation and care. Stories of those with mental health issues not getting the help they need, whether it be due to cost or a hole in the criminal justice system. Stories from those battling substance abuse and the trauma and poverty that encouraged it. Stories of those persecuted for their sexuality or identity, losing opportunities or their lives.

Representation has moved slowly, but it’s occurring. At times, no matter how much representation I find on social media or television, there’s still a desire for more, to be seen, an acknowledgment of worth. “You are here. You are seen. You are considered.” More importantly, there’s a desire for the causes of one’s struggles to be addressed by those with the power to do so. Maybe it’s an increase in police funding for crisis response calls for those with mental illness or substance abuse issues. Maybe it’s an increase in social services to better combat poverty and its resulting traumas. Maybe it’s a desire for the law to see you as it sees those more privileged and less persecuted.

As I’ve transitioned from an independent artist to studying and working in data science, I’ve aimed to provide representation and solutions in ways my art could not. Surely it is one thing to share the stage with those needing representation and another to recommend policy changes to make sure someone is around to see his/her worth the following day. Most recently, I’ve analyzed and build classification models tackling mental health issues in police shootings and recidivism and the US prison system. It’s rewarding to think these projects might enact change for those who need it.

In this first part of Data Points: Stories of the In-Between, I want to share both my experiences and the experiences of those I’ve met and loved and lost along the way. It may not result in policy change, but I hope it can impart the importance and respect a single line in a spreadsheet deserves.

You can find my work here.

Names, personal details, locations and any other revealing information have been changed or omitted out of respect.

Austin, TX in the 1980s

I’m no longer sure of the year Henry passed away. I think he used to be a voice actor. He was a welder when I met him or he made metalwork. He complained frequently about the weight of metal and the hassle of loading metal into his jeep with his bum leg. I guess the distinction doesn’t matter. He had a cane and chain smoked Camels and would sometimes make a point by directing both his cane and lit cigarette at you as if he were the absolute worst stick-up man. I met him at my first poetry mic in Austin. He didn’t read poetry. He told stories about New York and drugs and poverty and loneliness and violence and the intersections of those things.

After the cafe closed where we performed, between cigarettes, he would ask where my partner lived in Brooklyn. It didn’t really matter the street number or the nearest intersection. Wherever she lived, it was always a stones throw away from some velvet night, an ebbing memory of New York in the 80s, of good times that were never really good times. I think he hurt his leg in that period. Maybe it was his back. I don’t know anyone anymore who could correct these details. I don’t know if anyone at the time around could correct any of these details.

Over the years, Henry and I worked up a rapport. It was mostly one sided. He’d sit outside all night talking to the poets who smoked or needed someone to complain to about their set. I don’t believe he ever watched any of my sets. Even when I was paid to perform at the cafe, he sat outside, smoking and telling stories and giving away cigarettes. I never missed his sets. There was something about him. I know that’s broad and cliche and a tagline for a romantic comedy that stalls in the first act. You just wanted to be around him even if the stories were always the same. “Man. This one time — .” “I got so fucked up.” “I used to be able to pay my mom’s rent.” “We were thrown out of the bar, but — .” Despite all this pandering and idolization, I have to confess, I never really knew much about him. It wasn’t until he passed that I felt closest to him.

Everyone drank at the cafes and bars that hosted poetry mics for burnouts and struggling artists. Young men would channel Bukowski. Young women channeled Plath. You got used to the acrid stench of cigarette smoke and the sugary smell of spilt whiskey. So I thought nothing of Henry’s drinking or his past stories of drug use. In my experience, violence, poverty and addiction all come in the same paper bag. Most people pushed through it or became functioning or disappeared, absent faces at the cafes and bars. For the young drunks and lovers, it didn’t matter much if I never saw them again. Henry reminded me of family.

A few years before I met Henry, I lost a relative in a string of relatives who got caught up in escaping the South. That’s probably more elegiac than they deserved. They were addicts but good people. That’s not a descriptive word. It doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes, it’s the best word you can come up with for the people who don’t want to be seen. I thought Henry wanted to be seen more than anyone. I thought I knew him in the way you’d know an uncle who disappeared or a cousin who fell off the wagon. Good people dying, trying to make sense of having nothing. It’s the esoteric myth making of families we tell ourselves to cope. Generations and trauma and poverty and cycles. Legacies. You know, the digestible stuff.

I don’t know Henry’s last name. I don’t know where he died. I know it was at his favorite bar. I don’t know where that is. I don’t really know much about him. He was a good guy.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) hotline: 1–800–662-HELP (4357)



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