Chapter Ten: The What
“There are things there that he has not forgotten, because he never possessed them — perplexing, but lost to him.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Handsome Bob and I were sitting behind the soup kitchen, sober as saints. (Well, we were actually smoking a bowl, but he and I accept that as sobriety. So, Bob and I were sitting behind the soup kitchen, sober. We’ll stop short of claiming sainthood.)
I have no specific memory of our discussion, but it could have been about Literature or Art, or literally anything. There’s not much we haven’t talked about. We draw no boundaries when it pertains to our pondering the universe. It’s a subject that has no end, and we’re proof of that.
I do remember seeing Kassandra. Her hair was in braids; more specifically, a thick, single braid that lay over one shoulder. That was when I first realized what it was about her: the single braid was my favorite of the hair styles that Toni wore. Kassandra looked like her twin. Toni has four sisters, but none who look this much like her. Kassandra was Toni.
Officer Penis had been assigned to patrol Preble Street. He no longer menaced Beat 2. I don’t know how they determine which cops go where. I don’t care. To them, I’m just a backpack, and to me, they’re just a badge. Don’t get me wrong — I’d rather deal with certain cops than others, but there are sides to all of this, and they’re all cops. They’re all the badge.
When we saw Officer Penis, we began to study his movements, his body language. He was just standing there, outside the kitchen, his hands clasped behind him. From my vantage point, he almost looked handcuffed. He definitely looked out-of-place, ill at ease. He was rocking slightly from side to side, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“He’s insecure,” Bob noted. “Look at the way he rocks his body back and forth. He’s uncomfortable.”
I’d noticed that, but hadn’t considered why. I just figured he must be physically uncomfortable, maybe due to his footwear. If he was mentally uncomfortable, I figured that was most likely due to a deep disdain, or even disgust, for the homeless. I’m sure our way of life is alien to people like him. I could recall when it was foreign to me. I’ve had to do many things to survive that at one time would have disgusted me.
The Penis approached us. “Gentlemen,” was his greeting.
“Hello, Officer Penis,” I respectfully replied.
“How are you two today?” he asked.
“We’re living,” Bob coined in.
“Yeah,” I said, “just trying to stay sober and keep to ourselves.” That was my subtle way of saying, We’re minding our own business. Why don’t you?, but I wasn’t stupid enough to say that, not to this cop. Then he said something that really threw me.
“You know, I’m an alcoholic myself. Six years sober now.”
What?! The word was blasting in my head like a foghorn, or a siren. What had he just said? What had he just done? What had he just confessed to us? What could be his motivation? Just, WHAT?
I don’t know if Bob said anything in reply. I wasn’t talking. I was thinking. How could this be? Why had he behaved as he had toward us, particularly toward me? It hadn’t been my imagination. My perceptions were not that skewed. Everyone had seen it and everyone had perceived it as I had: He hated me. But he was a drunk.
Bobby has no social anxiety of which I’m aware. I’ve never seen him nervous or bashful, and this moment was no different. Like a pitcher preparing the mound, Bob dug his cleats in. “I can’t help but notice you appear to be uncomfortable,” he finally said. “Do you suffer from anxiety?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Did he just ask this cop if he was insecure?
“What makes you say that?” Officer Penis asked, very curiously.
“I can’t help noticing you keep weaving from side to side,” Bob testified.
“Oh, that,” the cop said. “These shoes are really uncomfortable.”
I knew it!
“But,” Penis added, “I do experience a level of social anxiety.”
While Handsome Bob and I had been studying Officer Penis, someone else had been studying us. It was a caseworker. When the cop departed, she approached.
“So, why do they call you Kenny Wayne?” she asked.
“It’s my name,” I said.
“I thought your last name begins with a ‘B.’”
“It does. My middle name is Wayne. There’s a famous blues guitarist named Kenny Wayne, and I play guitar, so…”
“Oh,” she said, smiling at me. “Well, if you’re really serious about this sobriety, maybe it’s time to figure out a way to get you off the streets and safely housed.”
“Do you mean you wanna help me?” I asked.
She gave me her card. She used to work for Preble Street but now worked with Opportunity Alliance. We began meeting almost daily after that. I was also working with a caseworker from Shalom House, but I figured hedging my bets would be a prudent strategy. A good gambler always finds a way to wager wisely, or else winds up the loser.
Tuesday evenings on Oxford Street, there was a cookout and handout behind the Salvation Army. That organization had nothing to do with it. In fact, I’m told they put a stop to it. As a former Salvation Army soldier, I find it disheartening how little charity they provide in the community. Their primary activities, aside from spiritual warfare, seem to be adult rehabilitation and selling clothes, but the latter couldn’t be profitable without the free labor provided by the Adult Rehabilitation Center, a.k.a. the Sally. Their operation is commonly viewed by the impoverished population of Portland as a slave camp for those most desperately seeking salvation from the demons that possess them in their addiction.
Anyway, I went to this cookout with Jeremy. We were asked to perform by some very kind and curious Christians. We played a couple tunes together and a guy came over who knew me by name. I didn’t recognize him, but he asked if I’d play my song “Dreams.” That proved he knew me, because I’m the only place you can hear that song.
Later, that same man led the gathering in prayer. He explained to a very varied congregation how I was his inspiration for organizing this Tuesday night ministry. He told a story that led me to realize who he was. He had helped me before. He left that part out of the tale he told, but I’m going to tell you now.
I’d been sitting on a bench at the Resource Center, feeling like hell. I’d gotten pretty hammered. I couldn’t remember most of what had happened. My memory of the day began with my waking up on the ground next to a dumpster, where I must have gone to drain off some of the beer that led to my blackout. I had smashed my head pretty good, because there was blood running down my face.
This guy pulled over across the street, got out of his car and walked to the benches. He sat down beside me and asked me my name. I told him. He asked me for my story, so I told him some of that, too. Then he offered to take me to the store and buy me beer and cigarettes.
I went with him, but I was suspicious. In my experience, this usually leads to a proposition. It’s strange how many people will pay to have sex with the homeless, but nothing’s shocking.
He never proposed anything of the sort. He bought me a pack of smokes and a few Daddies. Then he sat back on the bench with me and asked if I’d play guitar for him. That’s how he knew my song. It was the same story I’d already told him, just with a few rhymes and suspended chords. It was all I had left of my life.