News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience

Chapters 11 and 12 from Book IV of an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

by | May 1, 2022

illustrations/Katy Finch

Chapter Eleven: He Had to Go

“Life is simply one continual watch against the Menace of death; it has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct…”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

Foxy was all dried up and detoxed and waiting for his ride. He was leaving and no one from the Crew seemed to care in the least. He had worn out his welcome amongst the most unwanted and unwelcome crowd in Portland. As welcoming as the Crew had been to me and many others at the lowest level of our lives, everyone seemed relieved that Foxy was leaving, glad he was going to be gone. He had wronged us all and this was the only way he could make it right. He had to go.

Foxy was going to the York County Shelter. I was about the only one who was still talking to him. I didn’t like many of the things he’d done — ​he had stolen from everyone, including me —​ but I understood what happened. The struggle to survive the street is demeaning and demoralizing. A man who maintains his integrity out there is not just a person like anyone else. He is a superman. 

I don’t mean to be gender-biased here. I am examining the character of a man, Foxy, but no less should be said of any woman in similar circumstances. A person just like anyone else, cast to the curb and abandoned like trash, waiting to be buried or incinerated, will do things he or she — or we, as civilized savages observing the actionmay find disturbing and degrading, immoral, almost unforgivable, in order to make it, to survive. 

The friends I had made in the streets were exceptional, in that they had somehow maintained a moral code. Granted, it’s not the same code a cop might follow, but neither was it simply ​honor among thieves​. These were real morals and values, true Honor. 

Sure, there were beers and bottles that were lifted, but the disease is a demon. It’s unfortunate, but that demon haunting the soul of the addict has very tempting taunts, taunts strong enough to override nature’s own survival drive. That’s why I was still talking to Foxy. His demons had blurred his moral vision. That didn’t make him evil. It only made him human.

“What time are they picking you up?” 

“Within the next half hour or so,” Foxy said to me without raising his head. He was sitting on the steps of a doorway adjacent to the Resource Center. His hands, as weathered and worn as his old leather jacket, were clutching the neck of his guitar, near its headstock. He was twisting the guitar, rocking it to and fro on the sidewalk. He stared at the ground where the instrument pivoted against the pavement and didn’t raise his eyes. Then he began to speak.

“Ah, Kenny,” he said, drawing his shoulders more tightly to his neck, as if trying to shield it against a nonexistent wind. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what I’ve become. I’m scared. I don’t like myself much anymore.”

I understood. But I couldn’t tell him that. He didn’t need my advice, and I knew he wasn’t seeking advice from me. He needed a friend, someone to hear his confession. And I listened.

“I have to go,” he continued. “I have to try and find myself, the man I used to be.”

“I hear you.”  

“Do you hate me?”

“No, I don’t hate you,” I replied. And I really didn’t. If anything, I loved the guy. I had come to wonder if either Love or Hate were even real. Everything seemed like different sides of the same coin. I was beyond Good and Evil; I was only human. I had no higher vantage point from which to judge than any other man had. I’d been in the Pit of Hell and lay with angels and witnessed others hoisted to the heights of Heaven by devils. It was Nature, ​human nature.​

“I think you’re doing the right thing,” I told him. “And I think you can do it.” 

Foxy raised his eyes, as if in wonder, to meet my own.

“Just remember,” I continued, “you won’t find your ​self o​ut there. You’re going there, but you’re in here,” I said, tapping my chest. 

The van pulled up and he tossed his bag into the back. Carefully placing his guitar inside, he turned to me. We hugged. And Foxy was gone. He had to go.

Chapter Twelve: The Hope Rock

“Words, Words, Words — they do not reach me… Still I do not give up hope.” 
Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

If you’re a musician, the sidewalk is the toughest place you can perform. If you’re playing in a bar ​or a club or café and the patrons didn’t come to hear ​you​, they still came to hear ​someone​. When you’re playing guitar in the streets, not only did they not come to hear ​you​, they didn’t come to hear anything, and you’re the last thing they want to see, especially if you’re homeless. Turning that around and making them not only want to listen, but want to give you money, is a talent in itself, as much as the ability to play is — maybe more so.

A lot of times when I’m out busking there are moments that are more valuable than money. There are the dancing babies, the random improvisational jams, the rare requests that you ​want​ to play, and unusual tips, like food or booze or pot or, as in this tale, a rock.

You see, this is no ordinary rock. God has made many rocks. For all practical intents and purposes, the number of rocks in the known universe might as well be infinite. So this rock is one of an infinite number, yet it is very special to me.

I don’t know the person who gave it to me. Chances are I’ll never see her again. It was a gift to a stranger, a homeless man whom she had never met, but she had taken the time and effort to paint the rock and find the perfect person to give it to. Of all possible worlds in the universe, this girl found a rock on this one and painted it, then gifted it to me. If this doesn’t sound like a miracle to you, maybe you miss the miracles this little girl saw all around us, and I feel sorry for your lack of awareness. They are here, these miracles. The child herself is one of the grandest. Life itself is a miracle.

The rock rests on my kitchen stove now. I carried it around in the streets, homeless — ​first in my coat pocket, and later my guitar case —​ for about a year, regularly reading its message. She’d painted the words with her delicate little hands. There are smaller words — Love, Smile, Believe —​ surrounding one larger word that carries the main point she wanted to express: Hope.

It’s not the Hope Diamond, but it’s not without value. It told me then and reminds me now that someone saw value in ​me.​ I said before that I don’t know the girl who gave it to me. Perhaps that’s not entirely true, because I do know about​ her by the gift she gave. She is going to bring compassion and generosity to the world. I believe in her. She’s already been working at it.

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