Ghosts Among Us / by John Koster

I call them Ghosts.


With the kind of work I do, I see them everywhere. Scurrying around in the shadows, making their way into places we do not go. They don’t make eye contact, they don’t respond to conversation, they are not present when I’m talking to them. The only people that they interact with are their own. And they share a common, silent language. The language of desperate, end-stage drug and alcohol addicts.


The first time I encountered a ghost was in year one of being a cop, with a night beat in one of the worst parts of town. It was January in Wisconsin and at that time of night no one, no one was outside in the sub zero temperatures. I was working the night shift, and by midnight, not a soul ventured out.


The streets were empty, lined with trash bins perched precariously on blackened snow banks,with abandoned cars buried under white sarcopaghi of hardened, crystal snow. I was slowly making my way through bombed out ruins, the streets a desolate, empty cathedral with just the bitter sky above. The only movement I could see were the tv screens blinking, shrouded by make-shift curtains in little apartment windows. The squad tires crunched under the frozen snow and ice, and the police radio was silent.


All of a sudden, I saw what seemed to be movement in the darkest of shadows next to a run-down fourplex adjacent to an alley. At first, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. It was -16 degrees. No one would be out here at 1 am. I continued to slowly drive along, keeping an eye on the walkways and alleys. Then, I saw someone scurrying like a rat from shadow to shadow, making their way from building to building. I drove down the street, and made my way up the dark alley with my lights off, and turned my squad off.


Then I saw a figure move between the bushes and the apartment building. It opened the side door, and slid inside. I thought maybe I was seeing a burglary taking place, but I was incredulous because of the time and the weather. I called in my location and went inside the building, where I could faintly hear someone in the basement below. Flashlight in one hand, collar mike in the other, I made my way down the basement steps, and turned the corner. In the darkest part of the basement I saw someone huddled in a corner, smoking a crack pipe. I ordered the person out into the light, and a woman came forward, pipe in hand.


The way she looked shocked me. She was clearly a young, attractive woman, but her drug addiction had ravaged her. Her hair was a knotted, matted mess, open sores on her face and her neck, her eyes hollowed out and lifeless. Her smell almost made me vomit. I asked her if anyone else was with her, and she told me no, not now anyhow. Come to find out, she had a husband and two young children in a suburb north of town. After her second child had been born, her addiction had taken over, and she had left a week ago. Hadn’t slept since she had left after her husband took the kids to school, making her way down into the ghetto and was now trading sexual favors for hits of crack cocaine. Day after day after day.


She had a college degree, a family she loved, a career as a teacher which she had lost. Her lips were burnt and blistered from the crack pipe, and she couldn’t even cry anymore. She felt nothing. She was a ghost, she told me. And then she begged me to arrest her and bring her to jail. It would be the only thing that would keep her alive, she told me. We had been told not to bring addicts like this to jail, just to cite them for trespassing, or possession of paraphernalia, and kick them off the property. I would cite her, give her a date to appear and court, and let her loose, into the sub-zero temps, unless a shelter would take her, and there weren’t any beds available.


She begged me over and over again to take her to jail. When my partner arrived, we decided to issue her a state charge for possession and take her to jail. The county jail wasn’t happy with us, but we knew she might otherwise die. We had her booked in, and left, and I felt relief knowing that in the morning she would be alive.


About six months letter, coming into briefing before my shift one night, one of the supervisors handed me a letter. It was from this woman. She thanked me for arresting her that cold night, it had been a turning point for her. She had gotten into treatment, and with treatment, she and her husband reunited and she was with him and her children again. She had put on twenty pounds, was working as a substitute teacher for the school system, and was getting her life together. I remembered the gratitude I felt reading the letter. It wasn’t often that we knew how our decisions out there played out in the long term. This was really gratifying, and I put that letter in my squad box and read it at least once a week.


Six months after that, she was found frozen to death in the basement of an abandoned building not far from where I had first arrested her. My heart sank like a rock when I heard about it, it shook me to my core. Another terrible reminder about what addiction to drugs and alcohol can do, and how powerless our best efforts were in the face of this torment. After that, I saw these ghosts wherever I went, night or day.


And so that memory came flooding into my mind when I encountered Mike and Katrina, as it always does whenever I come into contact with the ghosts. I was driving through the town of Alamogordo, NM, on my way back from Mexico, when I saw a few people slinking around in the shadows next to an abandoned building in a dilapidated section of town. I saw one man shielding a woman crouching in a corner from another man who was waving his arms maniacally.


I wanted to just keep driving. I don’t have an ounce of hero in me and I know those situations can be dangerous, and that’s what cops and social workers are for. But the photographer in me got the best of the situation, and I drove around the block, parked my car, grabbed my camera, and walked in on foot. I turned the corner and there they were. The bigger, dark haired guy with the menacing eyes had backed off into the deepest shadows, leaning against the building, while the other man was comforting the woman, who was laying on the pavement. Keeping a very close eye on the guy in the shadows who was staring holes into me, I approached the two of them, and immediately knew they were ghosts, at the very bottom of their addictions. Both were severely neurologically impaired, jerking and spasming in drug-induced pantomimes. Both were dangerously underweight, lacking teeth, wearing every stitch of clothes they owned, with bags full of food and clothing they had pulled out of dumpsters.


These are the people that we have no idea what to do with, that have drifted beyond the hand of human intervention. They will always be among us. Most if not all of them have suffered severe abuse or neglect growing up and sought the refuge of drugs and or alcohol to deal with a life they are completely unprepared for. They are usually schizophrenic or have some other serious form of mental illness compounded for their nonstop thirst for drugs. I always feel so helpless in their presence, as I know other than to sit with them, nothing seems to help. I have seen some of these come back from the brink of this hell, this madness, to live a happy and productive life. But the vast majority will die on the streets, forgotten, human refuse, who could not hold onto that life-line that offers hope and shelter from the pain.


Mike was softly consoling Katrina, who was clearly in pain. I asked Mike if there was anything I could do, and he shook his head. I was struck by how tenderly, lovingly he spoke to her, how he gently helped her as he glanced at the guy tucked away in the shadows. I told him that I wanted to take their picture, to remember them by. After I took their pictures, I asked him if I could help them in any way, if there was something I could do for them. He shook his head no, and kept attending to her. I stayed with them for awhile, until it was time for me to get back on the road.


I left without uttering another word. There was nothing to be said. I got in my car and drove away, putting the miles between them and I. It is at these times when the silence I so often enjoy is no longer a place of solace for me, but a haunted place, a reminder that but for the love of friends and family, and the grace of God, the difference between Mike, Katrina and I is almost imperceptible. Like a ghost moving between the shadows.