Chapter Thirteen: Sirens
Sirens tore through the wall of our sedation. There were no emergency vehicles, or police. The alarm signal sounding was my own screaming voice, involuntarily broadcasting a warning of bodily harm from my unconscious to my suddenly cognizant mind. Upon realizing the pain my nervous system was registering was merely my bad shoulder and not the onset of some final reckoning, Ronnie and I both laid our heads back down as my wailing dimmed to a whimper. I had transfigured from ferocious, rumbling Beast to a whining mechanical device, a pathetic machine fueled by frustration, annoyance and agony. If it hadn’t been my shoulder it would have been my hip, or my other shoulder, or my other hip, or my back, or hands, or knees, or something. The Road — its park benches, sidewalks, doorways, cell bunks — was taking its toll on me. My body hadn’t slept on any surface softer than a cardboard-covered wooden bench in years. I mostly slept on stone and steel. There was no reprimand or chiding from Ronnie. He was accustomed to such sudden disruptions and he understood. He didn’t feel my pain, but he was familiar with it. He knew pain. He understood anguish. He sat up and began to maneuver his body into a position by which he could mount his prosthetic legs. It was the crack of dawn and it was time to move on.
We strolled down Congress Street through the afternoon rays, exploring the Fine Arts Festival. Not being very refined, I don’t really know how to define fine art. To me it seemed like a common arts-and-crafts fair, just another marketplace (which is fine, so maybe that’s what they meant). Most of the western end of downtown Congress was closed to traffic for the event and there was tent after tent set up along the sides of the street. Each canopy housed another peddler putting a price on what he or she considered fine. Over by Maine College of Art someone was projecting video imagery onto the façades of buildings across the street, like open-air, big-screen TV — commercial art at its finest.
Aside from a couple portraits and landscapes, not much I saw that day appealed to me as being particularly artistic. Some of it was crafty, but most of that could have been for sale as a Kmart “Blue Light Special,” minus the affordability implied by the word special. I enjoy walking around the farmers’ market more. Even when I have no money I can still appreciate a pretty flower, an UglyRipe tomato, or even a really ugly squash. That’s Art designed by the Master. Only God can make a tree.
I did, however, buy some art that day that seemed fine to me. I purchased it at the same three stores I usually patronize: Yes Books, The Green Hand Bookshop, and Strange Maine. I bought books from all of them. I picked up A Clockwork Orange, Johnny Got His Gun, and finally found 2001: A Space Odyssey at Strange Maine. My son, who was born in 2001, is named after the character David Bowman. I love secondhand books.
The other interesting thing I noticed on Congress Street during the festival was that every other intersection had two porta-potties. There are many hundreds, if not thousands of homeless people in the City of Portland — more, by my estimation, than the attendance at this afternoon event. The festivalgoers are folks with homes and plumbing, people who would likely be allowed to use restrooms in the establishments that cater to the commercialism these normal people are expected to bring to the business district. I only knew of three public porta-potties in daily use in all of Portland: at East End Beach, Back Cove and Deering Oaks, and this last one was only accessible during daylight hours. I guess it’s only normal to use a porta-potty if you have someplace else to go.
Dusk had settled, surrounding us and the dust and debris that was already settled and surrounding us. Handsome Bob and I were sitting on those dirty old benches at the Resource Center with the drunks who were also settled and surrounding us. Such is the usual scene during summer evenings on the Block, an informal gathering of AA dropouts — more alcoholics than at any single meeting you will ever attend, except maybe the big conventions the program holds.
As the darkness enveloped us we heard the sound of sunflowers dancing on the breeze. “What’s that music?” I asked Bob.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You wanna go exploring?”
“It sounds nearby enough to be in the buffer zone,” I reasoned, estimating the distance to the downtown areas from which I’d been banned. “It might be safe.”
I was really trying not to get arrested. I was also trying not to get drunk. Both of us were. We were walking a tightrope. The cops were likely to hassle us off the Block, but the Block itself is a hassle when you’re trying to stay sober. The Serpent is always lurking down there in the dirt, in the free drinks offered by fallen men far from Eden. This is the Land of Nod, named so for good reason. Most of its inhabitants dwell on barely this side of consciousness, and their primary goal is to break on through to the other side. Life doesn’t matter much if you’re dead, or dead drunk.
Bob and I were stone-cold sober, and the Siren sound of sunflowers seemed like a beckoning call from the lost Garden, echoing over the taunts of demons. “Let’s take a walk,” Bob said.
Handsome Bob did a lot of walking around the Little City. He spent many hours alone exploring the art and architecture of Portland. For all the ugliness I had found, he had taken beautiful pictures in the same spots. All the variation of Creation exists in every corner of the world. If you look for trouble, it can become burdensome, but if you look for Truth, it can bring release. And once you find release, you begin to find connection.
We made our way up the hill toward the Siren’s sweet singing. On the way, Bobby stopped to talk to someone, because another thing you find when you’re released is Time — time to cultivate connections, to tend the cottage patch that is your community. I continued on, like brave Ulysses drawn to the rock, cymbals crashing like waves of sound against a nearing shore.
The band was playing the patio at Slab, a pizza joint near the top of Preble Street. There’s a grassy hill off to the side that was covered with freeloaders, just like us. That was comforting to me. I wasn’t the only one trying to steal the show.
The next thing I noticed made me recognize that these folks probably weren’t just like me, because I would have already eaten the piece of pizza on the ground. It wasn’t on the grass; it was on the bricks around the bandstand. And it wasn’t on a plate. That makes it free food. It was crust against brick, cheese side up. That makes it acceptable grub. But, apparently, this crowd didn’t see it as such. It was right beside the bandstand, practically center stage. Would I be a Beast to eat it now?
“These guys are pretty tight, huh?” Bob said, approaching from behind. I had lost track of the music. The only vibrations affecting me now were the rumblings of my stomach. I can’t help being a Beast. It’s my nature.
“Bob,” I said, pointing at the pizza, “you think it would be inappropriate for me to eat that?”
“It wouldn’t bother me,” he replied.
That was all the confirmation I needed. I grabbed the grub. We sat on the grass with the other freeloaders and I enjoyed the pizza, the sounds and the sights.
Drummer Boy Dave was really digging it too. His long hippie hair was floating on air, set in motion by the centrifugal force of his spinning dance, soaring like a kite catching lift on the wind. His Coke-bottle glasses served no purpose in the moment — his eyes were shut. Only the beat in his ears was guiding him. That was the last time I saw Dave before he died. I’m glad that’s the image he left behind with me.
Although the band was enjoyable, I felt awkward. I have a difficult time in social situations, especially sober. I wanted to at least smoke pot, so I asked Bob if he had any.
“I do,” he said. “But do you think it would be appropriate to smoke with all these kids around?” He pointed to a group of teenage girls sitting in front of us.
“Bob, take a closer look.”
He peered at the girls, who were younger than two of my three kids. They were smoking a bowl. That might not have pleased their parents, but it made our urge to smoke more socially acceptable to Bob, so we lit up.
The band really grabbed both of us then, which surprised me, because Handsome Bob is the anti-hippie. This was a granola group of guys with a strong, young, female vocalist straight from San Francisco. They played more my sort of music than the punk rock and mod favored by the bass player/comic-book artist beside me. (Bob used to play in an eclectic rock band called Hoboe that featured an electric-oboe player who’d once jammed with Tom Constanten, the only one of five Grateful Dead keyboardists who survived. I loved to tease Bob about that, telling him he was only two degrees removed from the Dead. “You’re practically Handsome Bob Weir!” I’d say. I don’t say that anymore. Handsome Bob hits pretty hard.)
The filth of the Resource Center’s courtyard cannot be captured in pictures or the printed word. You can’t feel the grime, or smell the putrid air there, or sense the violence that causes the disregard for self-regard which, in turn, creates such a Purgatory on Earth. The dark of night only enhances the hellish atmosphere of a place like that.
Occasionally the street pastors would roll through, handing out water, Tootsie Pops, socks or gloves, trying to shed a little light on that dank Darkness. Nowadays they call themselves street disciples, which is probably more fitting, because they don’t preach at all; they simply shine as a witness of faith and hope through the act of Charity. It isn’t money they share. That’s not what Charity is.
“Kenny!” a disciple addressed me on this night, “how are you?”
“I’m well, Becky. How are you?”
“I’m happy! I’ve been worried about you,” she said. “Are you still sober?”
“We’re praying for you,” she promised.
“Thank you,” I said with sincerity. “That means a lot.”
“Have you written anything else lately?” she asked.
I played some songs for the disciples, they prayed for me, then they left for the Port to spread the Word, without preaching a word.
In the midnight hour I was still sitting on the benches, surrounded by what drunks were still this side of Paradise. I was smoking a cigarette and enjoying the bottled waters I’d collected from alcoholics with little interest in liquids that don’t come in containers with percentages on the label. I was listening to some guy who was instigating his third altercation in about an hour. He was harassing a little guy, who stood up to him. The bully was far larger than his target.
“I’ll fuckin’ kill you, man,” the little guy warned. Dancing about, he threw a punch that cuffed the bully in his jaw. Then he ran off toward Portland Street.
The bully sat on the bench next to me, maybe three feet away. I guess the little guy’s punch must have dazed him. I put my guitar down, on the side away from the drunken bully, and rolled yet another cigarette. I lit it, and as I smoked I wondered why I did. I didn’t feel like smoking. I didn’t feel like sitting on the benches. I pondered whether there was a connection between the two. I figured there likely was.
Then, from the corner of an eye, I saw a sudden movement. Not wanting to be caught off guard, I turned my head toward the bully just in time to see the little guy who’d just run off pull a chef’s knife out of his shirt and start stabbing the bully in the face.
It may seem crazy, but I didn’t even flinch. I didn’t feel anything — no fear, no sorrow, no emotion at all. I didn’t even stand up until my smoke was finished. As I walked away to go sleep on my spot on the sidewalk, the police were racing to the scene. I could hear sirens.