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Rex sees how casting himself as a junkie preacher might come with some irony and credibility problems. "They're conflicting urges," he says about drugs and activism. "But I want to get a message out. I don't think we should be forced to work jobs we don't like and pay huge amounts of rent. I want to have fun in this life and help others do the same. I believe in life before death."
Rex knows his lifestyle could jeopardize his freedom. Late last November, he went to UC Berkeley to aid the tree sitters in their protest, bringing supplies and spreading their message to passersby. When the police approached a friend, Rex stepped in and things got physical. Rex was charged with battering an officer, although he insists the cops are lying and that he was the victim: "He [the officer] didn't have to attack me. He took advantage of the opportunity: no witnesses, no cameras."
"I think Rex knows he's broken people's hearts," says Erna Smith, a professor and associate chair of the journalism department. "When I first saw him, he looked like a suicide to me." Smith is supervising the work on The Bum Life Project. At first Rex wanted to create a multimedia manifesto on homelessness, but, she told him, "That's been done before, and it's been done better than you can do it. You have to do it about your experience."
Smith says Rex never abuses trust. He never asks for anything, and she doesn't give advice. "He's a very passionate student who wants to apply everything he learns to a real-life situation," she says. "He does expect people to look past all this stuff and see the goodness in his revolutionary heart. I wonder if he wants the world to be a better place, or is he using that as a way not to look at himself? If he makes it, I'll be over the moon. And I won't be surprised if he's dead in a year."
Two weeks before the end of school, Steve and Rex join a demonstration on campus to protest the school's budget cuts and fee increases. They run into Lori Hostetter, who is used to seeing Rex bleary-eyed and slurring his speech, but today is different. "He was just pumped up to be there contributing to a good cause," she says. "He said he wants to start a revolution. He's actually a smart person, and I hope he gets some help so he can make his dream happen. I'd hate to see addiction come between that."
Rex says he quit heroin yesterday after doing a wake-up shot at 5 a.m., and his dilated pupils seem to corroborate his story. He plans to live in the woods over the summer, where a dope habit would be unmanageable, so he's trying to give the needle a rest.
The demonstrators head off to another part of town and Rex joins them, a little disappointed that Steve is hanging back to study. "I'm proud of him, though," he says. "I've seen that guy down and out, covered in staph sores, in the street — raging heroin addiction."
The next day, a harsh noon sun blankets the unkempt garden in the courtyard the two have called home for eight months of the fall and spring semesters. Yellow and purple flowers are blooming, even brighter than the red and blue junk-food wrappers on the ground. Hummingbirds and mosquitoes cut through the air as Steve walks through a minefield of empty soup cans and cigarette butts and drops into a chair in the sun. His black leather shoes are untied and he hasn't, as yet, changed out of his Hostess Twinkie pajama bottoms. He has not decided to quit heroin today, and his pupils are pinned.
"Life is a battle to stay clean for a junkie," he says, "and that battle is usually lost. You can always quit, and you can always start again."
Steve's cell phone beeps. It's Rex. Apparently they missed an appointment yesterday with a student who is helping them edit The Bum Life Project. They sort out the due dates for their assignments before Steve hangs up, shaking his head.
Over the next week, the two struggle to get their schoolwork done. Rex says he's hit a wall of depression, barraged with negative thoughts and feelings about the world and his life. When those emotions start to impinge, he turns quickly to what he knows.
Days before their final projects are due, he's lying face up on his mat at 1:30 in the afternoon — back on dope. Earlier, he and Steve went to the Tenderloin to visit the cancer patient and bought some Dilaudid, pharmaceutical opiate tablets that, when crushed, can be injected like heroin. He was disappointed by the pills and hopes that today Steve can find something stronger.
Rex is polishing off a bag of cookies when Steve calls with an update: Same dope as yesterday. Rex is disappointed but urges Steve to get back to camp soon. With his drugs on the way, he talks more about quitting. "I have so much school work to do I'm just not going to do [heroin] until the end of the semester, or maybe anymore."