On the corner of 16th Street and Peralta, in front of the New Jerusalem Baptist Church, is an antediluvian dopeman who will give you balloons of brown powder in exchange for exotic cheeses. For a pound of Jersey Blue you can expect at least three balloons; a pear-shaped Caciocavallo Podolico could get you six, possibly seven. Definitely seven. It is a well known fact that the old hustler adores the famously nicknamed “horse cheese” when served in thick slices and paired with fruit. A slab of Bitto Storico—aged 10 years or more—can fetch a couple points over a gram. Approach his decrepit Winnebago with a quarter-pound of White Stilton Gold in one hand, a bottle of lactose powder in the other, and you might end up with two or three bundles of raw. You never know what you’re going to get; the value of the cheese you bring is never based on anything as simple as fair-market value or economic trends in the dairy industry.
As we approach the RV bearing gifts of coagulated milk protein, we notice that our hands are shaking. That’s just the DT’s talking. Delirium Tremens. They tell us that it’s an alcohol thing and that Boy won’t do it to you, but when you wake up in a pool of your own cold liquid—filthy sweat droplets accumulating in the space between your nostrils and upper lip, and your hands are too unstable to risk losing a point when you pour out a line on the nearest clean surface you can find—they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know from experience. They don’t know what it’s like to wear a hoodie into the Harrison Street Whole Foods in the middle of July and stuff blocks of rare cheese in the oversized front pocket of the aforementioned hoodie. They certainly have no idea what it’s like to try to steal cheese while the withdrawal already has you secreting a slimy cellophane sheet of sweat, and your hands are still shaking and the sweat drips into your shaking hands—which are now not only shaking but slippery—so you accidentally drop a brick of Wykes Farm Cheddar onto the recently buffed floor of Whole Foods. When it hits the floor, it actually bounces two times before it tumbles to a stop. I don’t know if the buoyancy of cheese has anything to do with the quality of its taste, but that shit bounces. I also don’t know if I’m using the term buoyancy correctly but hey, yolo, am I right?
Nobody I know has any sympathy for those of us who steal curd. The general consensus in the Lower Bottoms is that shoplifting cheese is better than selling your body or stripping copper from elementary schools and churches. Sex work and scrap work both do a number on a person’s body. In their own ways. Hitting a quick cheese lick is clean, so therefore it must be easy work.
These naysayers would never understand what it’s like to take 580 West until it turns into this big-ass bridge that goes over the water for what seems like forever, because they’ve never left The Town. They have no concept of what a road that goes on for miles of rolling, empty, green and golden earth even looks like. Or how if you take that same road far enough out through the picturesque mountain backdrop of Northern California you get to a magical place called the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company.
That’s where we find the wheel of San Geronimo.
Ten pounds of award-winning washed-rind goodness. The second place winner of the American Cheese Society Raclette category. At the time we have no idea what a Raclette is.
One hour later—because only amateurs speed on the freeway with dead tags—and we’re back in West Oakland where the door of the white and diarrhea-green 1993 Winnebago Adventurer swings open. Black Ray Ban Wayfarers floating in a cloud of blue smoke appear.
The cloud speaks. “As any self-respecting cheese-lover will tell you, processed cheese products like Velveeta and Kraft Singles are simply not cheese. Not cheese, in the sense that anyone with any semblance of self respect could attest to. These products contain many of the elements of cheese, but they are not cheese or anything resembling it.”
Our weathered dopeman stands in front of the entrance to the Winnebago, one-fisting a Mason Pearson boar-bristle hairbrush, the distressed leather of his face skin pulled taut around his cheekbones.
“If the first ingredient in a cheese product is cheese,” he says, holding his other hand out, palm up, “then it is not cheese. What you got for me?”
You hand over the wheel.
When it leaves your grip and slides past the tips of your fingers, the room shivers. At the time, you can’t process that you are the one that’s shivering, not the room. Blinded by the passing of the creamy Raclette, you deny the universal truth that rooms are static, even this one, however impossible it may seem at the time.
The cheese is no longer in your possession.
You feel lighter, and not in a good way.An intense yearning. Longing. When you long for something but you can’t put your finger on what that something is. Hop makes you feel lighter by making you feel heavier. It’s damn near impossible to understand what that means unless you’ve chased the dragon, which is also something that nobody says anymore, but don’t panic, I’m going to bring it back into fashion. I’m going to make it a thing like the Sobrante Park boys made Monkey Water synonymous with dropping a chunk of Mexican black tar into a bottle of Afrin nasal spray and shooting the brown liquid up your nostrils. That Monkey Water shit is ubiquitous now.
The dopeman fondles the wheel of San Geronimo. “You let this shit sit in your car?”
“Boy, don’t play me.”
“I know this shit sat in the car,” says the old hustler, glowering, his thick eyebrows coming together like two furry caterpillars. “You can tell from the deterioration on the rind. The San Geronimo has an edible orange rind with hints of gold. A pale shade of nacarat, if you will.”
You’ve never heard the word before so you repeat it after him so it seems like you do. “Nacarat.”
“Yeah fool, nacarat. What you have here is more of an earthy ochre color. Pissy yellow striations tattooing the shitty brown surface of the rind. Do I look like someone who enjoys dabbling in the consumption of pissy shit cheeses? Is it my demeanor? Perhaps it’s the way I carry myself? Is it a certain je ne sais quoi that I have that makes you think I like to partake in shitty, doodoo, pissy, butt cheese, business? Tell me then, is it?”
“No shit youngblood! What you think this is?”
You try to explain yourself but the words fall out of your mouth indiscriminately, fluttering down to the ground in front of the Winnebago like a meth addict’s feathery hair. “I didn’t think—”
“That’s right,” he says. “You didn’t think. I’ll give you five grams for the wheel.”
This manipulative carrion bird is working you, getting over on you, offering you a fraction of what the award-winning cheese is worth. He’s trying to take you for a ride. The thing is, you’ve never seen five grams of heroin in the same place at one time. You know what the wheel of San Geronimo is worth but your hands have started shaking again.
You take the five grams.
When you get back to the car, you and Chauncy put a square of aluminum foil on the scale; mash the tare button; spill out the chunks of dope on the foil; fold it up the middle; put it back on the bench.
Sonuvabitch! Shorted three points. Chauncy says it could be worse. Chauncy says we could have one of those high-end scales that weighs your shit out to the hundredth of a point. He says that we’ve probably been getting shorted a half o’ point on every gram we’ve ever bought, but since we never have a scale that accurate in our possession, we never know that we are being shorted. A half-of-a-tenth-of-a-gram doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up over time.
Chauncy drops a half-gram into a bottle of nasal spray, then he shakes the bottle vigorously. I pinch a piece of tar off of a larger-sized chunk and put it in aluminum foil. Eyes closed, because now it’s all muscle memory. I put flame to the foil, shiny side down so I don’t get Alzheimer’s. Suck the glass straw. Chase the dragon.
On the corner of 16th Street and Peralta, a dopeman in the winter of his life, puts slices of the coveted Nicasio Valley San Geronimo on a charcuterie board, fanning them out in the shape of the letter “C.” He drizzles a deluge of extra virgin olive oil; flicks an apocalyptic pinch of saffron; spreads marionberry habanero jelly across a universe of crostini crackers. Masticated mortadella spills from his mouth.
David Simmons spent his childhood within the juvenile justice system in various institutions and holding facilities. His work has been praised by D. Harlan Wilson and Snoop Dogg. He has been featured in the Washington Post, 3 Moon Magazine, Across The Margin and The Manifest Station. David lives with his wife in Baltimore where he is responsible for creating the colloquialism “Whole Time.”