When Gin in Guatemala Leads to Crack in San Francisco (Freebird Tribe Member: Luke Armstrong)

About Luke:


Over the past two years my life has gone through a dramatic change. I have been involved with development work for the past decade, but only in the last two years have I begun to truly understand what it means to live in the heart. The full story of this is one I am still living, so do not yet feel called to tell. I have only just begun and re-blogging on my own blog after a one-year hiatus during this dramatic transition my life is undergoing.

In many ways I started living the dream early on. I finished my undergrads in Chile and then I started hitchhiking north with the plan of making it all the way to Alaska. I made it as far as Guatemala, where I started work directing a health/education charity. When I left that job in 2012, I went full nomadic and tried to make it as a traveling writer. It’s five years later and I’m still out here, so I guess I was successful. But I feel the change in the air. Do you feel it too? I felt that while I was looking for meaning in the world. The meaning I am searching for is somewhere within—yoga, meditation, devoting yourself to unconditional love—these are all ways of exploring this path and I strive every day to renew myself and dedicate myself to seeking inwards while giving to those around me. 

I met Joe in Puerto Escondido, Mexico when I rolled up to the holistic living center he was managing. We didn’t need much time, nor have we had much time, to become friends. Kindred spirits recognize their own. People on the path recognize those on their own path of seeking. Later when I returned from a shamanic mushroom journey in the mountains, I was walking home thinking, “I’d love to chill out with a joint and work on my novel,” and boom, Joe appeared in the street and sated this longing of my heart 😉



When I’m in Guatemala, I drink gin. On one such night, sipping my gin at The Snug, I met the musician Corissa Bragg, who was drinking next to me. We made tentative plans to jam in Antigua, Guatemala, but nothing ever panned out. Her baby was to blame, since every time we were about to play music he would get sick and vomit.

In San Francisco, where Corissa is based, she invited me to join her at “The Circle” jam session at Mission and 16th Street Bart stop.


As the listing on the Bay Area Open Mic Calendar, it sounded pretty awesome: “This is San Francisco embodied: an unorganized, impromptu gathering of folks to spout off, sing, dance, shout, play . . . whatever. There’s no organizer, no stage, no PA – whatever happens, happens. There’s a chalk circle drawn to invoke the creative space; jump in or jump out.”

Earlier that day, Corissa messaged me and informed me that, surprise-surprise, her littlun was sick and vomiting. She would not be making it to “The Circle.”

Like U2, I had already decided to go with or without her, so I  set off with my guitar to the subway stop to see where my six strings might take me. If fun correlates to the amount of crack being smoked in one’s vicinity, then a good time was had by all.

I came upon the subway station and approached an area with two guys and a girl all 16th-and-mission-bart-stop-san-franciscodressed like Sid Vicious drinking malt liquor out of paper bags. One of them was wearing an army helmet, and I took this to be a good sign I was in the right place.

“Are you here for the circle,” they asked me.

“Yes,” I told them.

They asked me where I had heard about the circle. I told them, from someone I had met in Guatemala. All three were quite pleased that word of the circle had spread to Central America. I asked them if it was okay to drink liquor in public like this.

One of them raised his bag of malt liquor and said, “Oh yes, as long as you’re not a dick about it, the cops don’t care.”

They asked me if I was going to play my guitar. I told them that first I was off to buy a tall-boy and a paper bag. At the grocery store the guy in front of me was buying two tall boys, but he only had money for one. So I spotted him two-fifty and he also seemed quite pleased with his night’s prospects.

When I returned to the subway stop, all three people dressed like Sid Vicious were being booked by the cops. I sat down next to them and asked the police if it was legal for me to play in the streets. They told me it was as long as it was not amplified.

So for the third time in my life, I found myself playing guitar for the police and people being arrested.

I have been on a Joe Purdy musical binge ever since Pandora injected his tunes into my ears, so I played about showing the police Paris in the morning and London in the afternoon. Neither the cops nor the kids being given minors seemed to enjoy the music very much.

Soon, I was left alone and I continued to play. It had rained all-day, so maybe nobody else was coming. Maybe everyone in The Circle but me had already been arrested. In which case, it was my responsibility to hold down this fort. So I was happy to play and sing and be that guy with a guitar in a heavily trafficked metro area singing for the love of it.

A few people of Asian descent came up with confused dollars that they tried to give me. To each I smiled and waved it off, “I’m not playing for money,” I said, “I’m just playing.” One young man hesitated with a dollar in his hand, reluctant to put it back in his pocket. After vacillating between decisions, he set the dollar on the ground next to me and said, “Just take it.”

There had been three black men at the other end of the tiled courtyard that served as the entrance to the Bart station. The sight of the dollar attracted one. He came over and said, “I’ll take that dollar.”

“Take it,” I said. He took it.

Then a man in a wheelchair wheeled himself over to me and threw me a bag of corn chips, “I don’t want em,” he said.

“I don’t want your corn chips,” I told the man.

“Well, I don’t want em either.” He laughed.

To the rescue came the man who had taken the dollar. “I’ll take those chips,” he said. He took the chips.

Guy in The Jamacan Beanie

Then a man in a Jamaican beanie, who looked he might be a sage, came over and gave me a Street Sheet. I have just learned about Street Sheets. As our friends at Wikipedia sum it up, “The Street Sheet is a street newspaper published and sold in San Francisco, California which focuses on the problems of homeless people in the city, and on issues of poverty and housing. The Coalition on Homelessness publishes the newspaper, and vendors distribute the paper on the streets of San Francisco, usually in exchange for a one-dollar donation.”

Jamaican beanie and I chatted for a bit. He told me a few memories from his younger days, when he was just arrived in San Francisco from Texas. I sang him and the two other men a few songs. Around this time, at the other end of the station to where my back was turned, some sort of spoken word was erupting. I listened, and decided to stay where I was. The spoken word were frantically yelled accusations that seemed more cathartic than constructive, more keening than verse and I was happy where I was even if The Circle had re-formed angrily behind me .

After a time, the three men went off in the corner of the station park and smoked some crack.

I drank my tall boy in the paper bag and watched them. When they came back, I street-sheet-san-frangave them a single serving of wine I had brought just in case the jamming at the station got real crazy.

While everyone at some point should have an expansive discussion on crack and the problems it poses to society, on this particular night I enjoyed these men’s company for a time and from where I sat on that night their crack smoking was one of many attributes, not their defining characteristic.

At one point the man in the Jamaican beanie told me that he wished he had another dollar so that he could get a McDonald’s sandwich. Feeling gastronomically decadent, I too felt lsthat a McDonald’s sandwich would hit the saturnalian hunger spot growing inside me. So I gave him $5 and asked him to get me a hamburger laced with extra pickles. McDonalds is dirty food of orgiastic origins and a vegan will never understand what glutinous pleasure it is to occasionally take this filthy culinary dive.

I noticed after the man disappeared to get our sandwiches that the McDonalds across the street was closed. Perhaps, he was going to another one I hoped, fairly sure from even before I gave him the money that he was not going to return.

Some readers might not find this feeling comprehensible, and I don’t really understand it fully myself. But I was kinda rooting for him to steal my money. I get scammed often for small amounts and it never really bothers me. In Belize, I gave a guy $5 for a fish dinner I think we both knew he was never going to cook me. I find that offering yourself up for petty scams is a win-win scenario. If the person ends up coming through, it is a wonderful surprise of finding honesty and integrity amid poverty—and isn’t this a value Americans hopelessly cherish?

Sometimes, a guy comes back with a hamburger. Mostly, you are scammed. When I am scammed, I feel like it’s a victory for the underdog. For me the headline, “Crack Addict in San Francisco Tricks Privileged White Man Out of $5 And Buys Crack” will always be more hopeful than “Wealthy Banking Executive Exploits Dubious Loopholes in Finance Law To Pay for his Fiji Estate.”

At some point, I left to find some tacos and enjoyed speaking in Spanish to the Mexican guys running the shop. Each had been in the US for around ten years. I can’t be helped if I love surprising Latinos in America by being able to fluently converse in their language. I doubt the dopamine of this thrill well will ever run dry.

When I came back to the station, I joined the poets who had stopped shouting and were now mulling about. I’d had a few beers with my tacos, so this is the point where the memories of the night are more disjoined. I know at some point a new crack smoker, much higher than the previous, began alarming two young women seated near me. I struck up a conversation with him in order to extricate them from it and they seemed grateful.

The  conversation began tense and confrontational, but eventually it settled into deferential dialogue that yielded to harmless banter. Some people came, others went. A crackhead knocked over my guitar, and now it has some new dings.

At the end of the night, I took the Bart one stop back to my barrio and remember enjoying a conversation with an intoxicated woman who waited with me at the station platform.

I left the night feeling I had gotten something out of it. It was not independently remarkable, but I think that if I’m lucky enough to one day fade away in a death-bed scenario, will be these many independently unremarkable nights that will make me wish life did not have double bars at its last measure.

If I were pressed under oath to tell a judge what the night felt like, then I would have to say it felt like we were all characters on Sesame Street. Everyone was a character and some characters looked like they lived in trash cans, but everyone got along okay. There were the kids all dressed like Sid Vicious. There was the guy smoking crack in the wheelchair and his gift of corn chips. There was the guy smoking crack in the Jamaican beanie who likely bought crack instead of my McDonald’s sandwich. There were the angry poets. The friendly police who had to do what they had to do and pleasantly handed out citations to the minors. If I was forced to explain under oath, I would say,

“Judge, isn’t it wild how a gin in Guatemala can lead to such serendipity in San Francisco?”

For more on Luke or if you’d like to follow his adventures through life:

Luke’s Blog: www.TravelWriteSing.com

Luke’s Book: The Nomad’s Nomad

YouTube Trailer: The Nomad’s Nomad Trailer

Facebook: Travel Write Sing

Instagram: LukeSpartacus

Cause: Operating a School for 81 Children in 2017

3 thoughts on “When Gin in Guatemala Leads to Crack in San Francisco (Freebird Tribe Member: Luke Armstrong)

  1. Pingback: When Gin in Guatemala Leads to Crack in San Francisco (Guest Writer: Luke Armstrong) – Following Freebird

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