News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience

Chapter 1 of Book V of an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

by | Sep 5, 2022

illustrations/Katy Finch; color by Charlie Singer

Chapter One: Diplomacy, Defiance and Defeat

“They cannot persist without solace, without illusion, they are disordered before the naked picture of despair.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

“BEEK!​ Pack your shit!” 

I was lying on my bunk, talking to my young cellmate ​from Downeast — Ellsworth, Maine, the town where my son lived at the time —​ when I heard the call. I jumped up and started to pack my tote. I didn’t know where I was being moved, but having been there a couple months I’d accumulated a small library (​consisting of at least five or six times the number of books you’re allowed) and I didn’t want to lose it. That meant I’d have to hide the volumes beneath my bedding whilst in transit to whichever pod I was going. I’d gotten the books into the box, covered them with the Bob Barker linen and wool, and was piling on my hygiene and cosmetic products — ​as well as my cup, bowls, spork, shower shoes, and all the other necessities one strives so hard to attain and hold onto in jail —​ when the guard opened the cell door. I was disappointed to be moving, because I liked my young celly and was comfortable there.

“Where am I being moved?” I asked. 

“Out,” was the answer. 

“Out where? Which unit?” 

“Outside,” he said. “You’re being released.” 

“You’re fucking with me.” I’d given up on making bail and had been preparing for the ride upstate, to prison.

“I wouldn’t fuck with you like that,” he assured me. “That wouldn’t be funny.”

I looked up at his honest and serious face. I looked down at the tote. I wouldn’t be needing any of it. I looked at young John. “You can have that stuff, man. It’s not much, but it’s yours now.”

I had no idea what had happened, or how, or why, but I was alight with anxious anticipation. I always have a hard time believing I’m leaving until I’m out the gate. Too many times I’d been counting on release only to be returned to my cell or, worse, another cell, or maybe a transfer to the Middle of Nowhere (a.k.a. York County Jail).

I had made bail, somehow, and the bail commissioner was waiting. The money had been placed directly onto my books, so I had no idea who’d come through. I’d been corresponding with Handsome Bob and he’d been working for me on the outside. All or most of the things I’d just packed were purchased with modest monies that either he or my daughter had placed on my account. This was a $300 jump, or more, from the amount last registered. 

When I exited the sally port, Trake and Hopi were outside to greet me. Mark handed me a bottle of whiskey right away. I looked back over my shoulder. “Put that away!” I said. “Are you crazy? I’m on bail conditions.”

He just smiled and handed me a Pall Mall. As I reached for it, he pulled me into a firm embrace. Then, lighting my cigarette, we walked over to the smoking area — probably utilized by jail employees and folks like these, awaiting a loved one’s release.

Hopi did most of the talking. “Mark wants you to have this,” she said, handing me five hundred-dollar bills. Then Trake handed me the whiskey again. I glanced around and, sensing that no one was watching us, took a big shot off the bottle. It was a half gallon. We had a smoke as Hopi explained that Mark had received his disability benefits and a fair settlement — fair at least as far as we were concerned. We’d become accustomed to having nothing, aside from the meager donations of ​normal people, ​from whom the authorities tried so hard to keep us segregated.

I recommended we go to Logan Place, where Joe Blaze had been housed. Ironically, it’s only a block from the Cumberland County Jail. It made far more sense to drink from a half gallon of whiskey there than to do so just steps from the Sheriff’s Department’s headquarters. When we got there, Griz and Anita were outside. She was waiting for a ride and the Griz was keeping her company. They’d both been party to a jail letter Bob had orchestrated and sent me some weeks before. We were glad to see each other, and there were hugs and handshakes and happiness for all. I was grateful to be “home,” despite my still being homeless.

Anita caught her ride and the rest of us signed in under Joe’s name, per the policy of the building. We didn’t stay long, just long enough to get a couple drinks in me and call a cab. The taxi dropped us off at a hotel in Westbrook, the Ramada, where Trake had secured a room. We stopped on the way and Mark bought me a half gallon of gin and a couple packs of cigarettes, both my preferred brands. We sure were sitting pretty for such a motley crew.

Mark and I went to the restaurant in the hotel, leaving the rest of the Crew in the room. He was adamant about buying me a steak dinner, and I was thrilled. While Cumberland County Jail food far exceeds the quality of York County food, they’re not serving the inmates steak. In fact, it’s still garbage — just better garbage. 

The hotel steak was good — to my surprise, because I rarely enjoy a steak that isn’t cooked by yours truly. And I had a couple excellent beers in the restaurant, ​Sierra Nevada and Harpoon IPA, that tasted better than the gin. Although the gin was my brand, it didn’t taste the same; something was lacking. But the company was good. The two of us caught up and reminisced. 

Back in the room, we continued to drink and smoke. We listened to music and the TV spit out the random images of violence, lust and luxury goods to which our culture has become accustomed. The sound was low, which helped reduce the level of distraction TVs are designed to produce, but I felt distant, removed from my surroundings. I felt strange. I always do following months of confinement. I call it jail lag. It’s not a time-zone thing, it’s a time thing. Time is different outside of jail. I figured I was suffering the effects of Relativity, an institutionalized version of the dynamic Einstein discovered.

The Crew members in the room, Trake, Blaze and Griz, seemed to be enjoying themselves quite a lot. Everyone was getting pretty lit up, except me. I was trying, but the gin just wasn’t hitting me. I hadn’t drank in months, ​and I’d been sober for months prior to the one drunk that landed me in the joint, but I drank most of the half gallon that night and never felt more than a tingle. I should’ve just given up trying, but the desire and compulsion to drink, ​or maybe just to recapture that Good Time Feeling, ​was upon me. And it was strong.

The others, ​in their celebration of my release, had gotten a bit promiscuous, and Hopi was putting on a real show, a carnal carnival act of depravity and debauchery. They should have gotten it on video. It probably would’ve been a hit in the world of internet porn. I’m not a moralist, but I had no interest in the events beyond being a spectator. It was better than watching TV. Hopi was a genuine entertainer. She thrived on the attention.

•••

Once again, Preble Street had discarded my belongings, which this time included over a hundred pages of manuscript I had written — ​entirely in jail, during a previous stint, and entirely in golf pencil — ​and had intended to be a good portion of a novel titled ​Heroes and Heroin​. That was the last time I tried to store anything that wouldn’t fit in my pockets or backpack. They’ve since gotten rid of the lockers at Preble, anyway. 

They also did away with the clothes closet. Now, when apparel is donated to Preble Street, they give it to Goodwill. Then you have to get to South Portland to buy back — ​from a “nonprofit” company whose CEO draws over half a million dollars a year in salary — what was freely given for people like you in the first place. And you probably can’t get a bus there, because they did away with bus passes, too, and cab vouchers and bagged lunches, and a lot of other services. They also cut back their hours. While homelessness continues to be a 24/365 job, the Resource Center was only a resource 20 hours a week: Monday through Friday, eight till noon. The old brown cow just ain’t what she used to be. 

•••

The day before Thanksgiving, I went to court. My lawyer had been all set to go to trial … and then she’d read the hospital transcript. She lost faith. It read pretty ugly. Neither of us had seen it before the day of my disposition. Until that day, the plan was to focus on mental health, substance abuse and sexual assault. I had woken up naked and afraid. These were facts. All of this is documented, even my sexual abuse. A predator went to prison for 19 years as punishment for my victimization. It could be proven and seemed a reasonable strategy, a legitimate defense. But in that transcript I didn’t seem like a victim. I seemed more like a villain.

“I don’t know how a jury would interpret this,” my young attorney said to me, handing me the newly submitted evidence. This is a tactic of the Prosecution. The D.A. had the paperwork at the beginning of the incarceration process. I’d been in jail for two months, out on bail for two weeks, and this transcript hadn’t been submitted until my arrival at court. There was little time to think, little time to plan a response. 

I’m familiar with Shakespeare’s opinion of lawyers, but I trusted this young woman. I had good reason to trust her. She worked hard for me and had always been responsive and attentive. I valued her opinion. I was confident in her ability. She had lost confidence in my ability to win. If you’re going into battle, you want your allies to trust that you and they can win the war together. She didn’t believe. This weakened me. And war is not for the weak.

“Look,” I said, “if you can get the felonies to misdemeanors, I’ll take their deal.”

As she went to negotiate — diplomacy now being our defense — I reviewed the transcript further. It read backwards. The first details presented were the final events of the incident. I was a Great Beast battling a steel barrier no brute could ever break through. It sounded savage, ferocious, ghastly. 

By the time she returned, I’d gotten to the end of the report: the beginning of the story. It stated that “while reported as unresponsive by passersby responds to physical stimuli and repeatedly says to F off.” In the State of Maine, or at least in the City of Portland, if a person is responding and refuses help, that person has the right to refuse help. Unless you’re ​Obstructing a Public Way,​ you don’t have to be able to get up and walk away. So, in theory, I had been abducted by the authorities.

“I got the deal you asked for,” my lawyer said, “and I also got the fines to run concurrent. Instead of three separate fines, you only have to pay one.”

This was more than I’d asked or hoped for when she’d left to make the deal. Now I was hoping for more. I showed her what I’d discovered in the transcript. She said she was still willing to fight if I wanted to go to trial, but I still sensed her lack of confidence, and if I felt it, a jury was likely to, as well. And I was a Beast. I stuck with Better Than Expected and gave up on Hope.

•••

I didn’t drink again after I left the Ramada — not because I was on bail conditions, although that was a good excuse to tell my friends. I hadn’t enjoyed drinking at the hotel. It wasn’t fun. 

That night, after court, I was walking down Park Ave. when a car pulled over. A woman driving the vehicle called out my name. I didn’t recognize her or her car. Then the Griz stuck his head out the passenger-side window and told me to come along. So I did. The woman was another Barbara.

Barbara Dow is a real Mainer. That’s a compliment. I live in Maine because I love it here. It’s not the landscape or the sea that set it apart from what I perceive as Away, though they’re wonderful. It’s the people: Mainers. 

When I climbed into her car I joined three Maine natives, two of them Portland-born and -raised. The Griz was from Damariscotta, but Barbara and, especially, George Merrill, were as local as it got. Barbara’s dad worked at the fish market by the Cut, but George’s parents ​met​ in the Cut, and George slept outside all around the Old Port, often right under the mackerel shack both his folks worked at when they got together. You simply can’t get closer to home than George Merrill was while living homeless. He’s just one more tough guy with whom I’ve slept outside. He’s a scrapper, too. Though he’d probably tell you I beat him up three times, I never felt like the Winner. It hurt too much to feel any Glory.

“Kenny,” George said, “Kenny Wayne. Don’t you hit me again, Kenny. Please don’t hit me, Kenny.” He was drunk.

“I’m not gonna hit you, George,” I promised, but then advised: “Just behave yourself.”

We drove around and smoked a little pot. We ditched George pretty quickly. He was difficult to deal with, being so wasted. Barbara doesn’t drink and I was sober. The Griz was drinking, but he hardly ever said anything anyway, so he doesn’t bother a person too much even if he’s drunk. He was one of my favorite people when I drank.

Barbara Dow wasn’t really homeless, but she was in between places. She dropped us off at the Condo. People had told me the spot was blown up, but I’d figured out a loophole. If you stayed on the first floor of the garage, on the side without the elevator, tucked far enough under the stairs, the security guards had no reason to suspect you were there. They rode the elevator to the seventh floor on their rounds. We had to sleep close together under there, but we didn’t care. We were tough guys.

On Thanksgiving morning, Barbara came and picked us up at the ferry terminal. She was going to South Portland to have dinner with her family. She said we could chill at her daughter’s place. There was TV and the usual facilities houses have, like a bathroom, and she promised to bring us back leftovers. I had really wanted to go to the Portland Club for their free holiday meal, but this was inviting. On the way, I decided to grab a half gallon of gin. It seemed like a good day to drink.

Griz and I drank all day. We were watching Kubrick’s version of ​The Shining​ for the third time when Barb got back. She hadn’t brought any leftovers. And there hadn’t been any food in her daughter’s house. I had looked hard; I was starving. We drove around Portland till we found somewhere to get takeout. By the time I was eating fried food from Crown Chicken it was 8:30 at night. I didn’t enjoy any of this, not even the drinking. The best part of the holiday was ​The Shining,​ a terrible adaptation of the novel but a masterpiece of cinema. The only significance of the day was that I was drinking again.

Barbara and I began spending every day together, sending flirtatious texts and tagging each other on Facebook — but not in the real world, even though I was trying. She was older than my typical woman by about 30 years, but she still had all the other credentials: thin, blonde and pretty. And she came with a few others: she was a Mainer, she was fond of her family, and she smoked pot instead of drinking. She bitched quite a bit about Bunk, but besides that she was always pleasant. 

It was the same with Bunk. I never knew Alton to complain about anything except Barbara. He was as easygoing as a guy could be. He was a fisherman and a pirate, with a soul much calmer than the sea. In hindsight, I should’ve known Barbara and Bunk would get together. They were both seafaring spirits who spoke of each other with such disdain that it had a certain devotion to it. Nobody carries on like that without caring for the one they’re carrying on about.

I continued to drink casually for about two weeks. Then we went to visit Joe Blaze. Barbara and Blaze hit it off great. Although Blaze was more of a Maine-iac than Barb, they were both traditional Mainers. Blaze had worked and lived on the waterfront and was familiar with her father. She’d been surprised that I’d never met him. I don’t think she actually took offense to it, but it seemed to affect her in an uncomfortable way. It meant I wasn’t from ​Here; I was from Away​.

Hopi had somehow transitioned from Trake to Blaze, and that chiseled a chasm between the two old friends. She was now hanging around Logan Place instead of Huston Commons. Mark is a tough guy but he’s also a loyal old dog, and this new development hurt him. I think her decision was based on the fact that Trake was trying ​not​ to get thrown out of his housing. After she’d slept inside the five nights allowed at the Commons each month, Mark would walk around outside with her all night but wouldn’t risk getting tossed by letting her stay inside. Joe Blaze had stopped caring about the rules. He simply didn’t give a shit. He wouldn’t make her leave and he wasn’t leaving himself. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Joe decided he wanted a little time to make getting thrown out because of Hopi worth it, so I left them alone and went up to see Ox. Technically, this wasn’t allowed by Logan Place either, but we were outlaws. How do you tell a killer and a bank robber they can’t break the rules?

I love Ox, and preferred the TV he watched to what Joe watched. Joe always tuned in to some cop show or crime show, maybe to learn how to rob a bank more effectively. Ox watched five hours of Star Trek every night. That show’s been a favorite of mine since before I can remember. Back then, there was only the original series, but this channel played them all. Between Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, during Voyager, he got my attention.

“Here,” Ox said. “I want you to take a look at this.” He handed me a pile of paperwork. 

“I can’t even do my ​own​ taxes, Ox. I’m not doing yours.” 

“No, I’m serious. Check it out.” 

I began pawing through the pile, but wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Oddly enough, being almost a real writer, I can’t make heads or tails out of any sort of form. I just can’t read official documents. The only ones I ever even try to figure out are court papers. My liberty is at stake in court, and that’s a solid incentive.

Ox explained it a bit, but I’ll be honest: I couldn’t follow all that, either. What I did follow was that he was working somehow to help the homeless. He was the only one I’d ever seen do anything like that after they were housed. Usually — and especially in this sort of residential institution for the prematurely aged and barely predeceased​ — people just forgot about their friends on the street. Ox was doing something. I don’t know what, but something positive.

Whenever I was in jail, I always planned to do something about civil rights, and inmates’ rights, and human rights. Then I got out, got drunk, and got distracted. It’s easier to drown your dreams than it is to water them, feed them, cultivate them. It’s easier to abandon Hope than battle for Better. I didn’t do a damn thing that was positive. And here was Ox, doing Good.

Sometime before Christmas, Barbara stopped coming around. And right before the holidays — ​a Christmas and New Year’s I really can’t recall —​ Wheels got housed. He left Joe’s to go look at an apartment and never came back. He moved right into his new place. I went back to drinking around the clock. I couldn’t even make it three hours without a drink. That meant I was even sicker than before, and that I’d gotten that way in a remarkably short amount of time.

Blaze was becoming more spirited in his rebuke of the rules —  regulations he’d agreed to when he moved in. ​‘They had no right”​ to tell him he couldn’t have Hopi there. He’d become defiant. I suspected he was out of Be Nice​ ​Pills, but I went ahead and said it anyway.

“Joe,” I began, “are you seriously gonna blow up your own spot for this cheap whore?”

The only inaccuracy in my assessment was probably the word cheap. She was beginning to cost more than money. She was now costing friendships and homes, things that can’t be bought, priceless things. 

Joe didn’t even answer me … not exactly. He just broke my nose and, upon seeing that didn’t faze me much, my guitar.

That hurt.

“I could hit you back, Joe,” I said, “but you’re my friend. And you bought the guitar. Keep it.”

And I left. I got on the elevator and headed up to the third floor. I walked into Ox’s apartment without knocking. I didn’t want security cameras on me long enough to register my renegade presence. I was now a refugee.

“Oh, Jesus,” Ox said. “Wha’d you say to Joe? And where’s your guitar?”

Ox knew the handiwork performed upon me could only have been forged by one resident craftsman. He also knew the fury of the hand that swung the hammer wouldn’t be satisfied by breaking the body. This artisan would feel accomplished only when he had transformed his subject into his own image: a manifestation of dark distress and anguishing despair. This sculptor understood his art was most effective at the depths of the medium that made a man. He would break the heart of the Beast in an attempt to break its Spirit. Ox knew.

“Oh, I called Hopi a whore,” I said with exasperation. “Joe broke my nose and smashed the guitar. It’s in splinters on his floor.”

The guitar had been murdered — a sacrifice too random to have been ritualistic, but still religious in nature. Joe Blaze is a man of faith. He knew he had hurt me deeply. Joe knows how to pay tribute to his gods. He knew he had cancelled out the Good he had done by giving me the guitar. Gods and demons give and take. Joe Blaze was bringing balance to the Universe.

•••

“Oh, honey! Oh, Kenny Wayne! Oh, baby, what happened? Who done this to you?” 

It was Black Jackie. We call her that to distinguish her from White Jackie, the two of whom were just Jackie if you were with either or both of them. 

“Joe,” I replied, “who else?” — not really asking a question. 

“​What​ is going on with ​Joe​ these days?” 

Jackie was born in Portland over 50 years ago. She graduated from Portland High School and had lived in Logan Place for a decade. She’s never left the Little City as long as I’ve known her. But she has this Southern-seeming accent and mannerisms. She must get it from television, or from some other medium that molds its observer. 

When she asked what was going on with Joe, she wasn’t asking a question any more than I had been. Both non-inquisitive inquiries meant about the same thing in this rhetorical sub-language beneath the shapes of sentences, a lingo for what is too desperate to say out loud, explicitly. We were both saying Blaze was unreachable. He had gone beyond the point of no return with his housing. Soon he would be houseless. And there was nothing either of us could do, as much as she and I both loved Joe Blaze.

Yet Blaze was still a step up from me. I was going outside, ​out of money and out of ideas, with no guitar and nowhere to go. Joe knew it would take months to get him out of Logan Place through due process. Joe knows a lot. By then, winter would be over and he’d be sleeping on a cold sidewalk, not in a frozen snowbank somewhere. I didn’t have till springtime. I was going outside now. 

I went into the bathroom to wash the blood off my face as best I could, and when I came out I discovered that Santa Claus is really real. There was a beat-up old Fender acoustic sitting there to replace my slain Jasmine. She would be mourned each time I played this new, lesser love, who was more a tool than an instrument, more a colleague than a spouse. My relationship with the Fender was practically a commercial enterprise. I just wasn’t motivated enough to make any real money with it, and very little Art reverberated from those strings. But Santa Claus gave her to me, for which I was grateful. I needed a hero I could believe in.

I moved around inside Logan Place, ​from tenant to tenant, for a few more days. I slept at Koral’s, and I was sick as hell. One day, when I returned to Koral’s living space from the bathroom, ​where I’d been heaving over her toilet for about half an hour, she was pretty disturbed.

“Why are you this sick?” she asked. “Is it the drinking?” 

“Yeah,” I said, trying to speak through mucus and phloem. I patted my muddy eyes. Tears — transforming crusty sediment of dehydration into sludge — had lensed my vision. It wasn’t just a bodily function. I was crying.

“But you have a whole bottle of tequila,” Koral said.

This was also spoken in the language beneath proper sentences. In this case, it was a question in the form of a statement. People like to play games, even when in serious trouble. She was playfully asking me why I was being so impractical. It was a question due to the absurdity of such an obvious statement: I had a whole bottle of tequila.

At the Westgate Shaw’s I had discovered a bottom-shelf brand that sold half-gallons of both bourbon and tequila for thirteen and change. It seemed like Destiny to Joe and me. We had been spending sixteen for The Great Compromise: gin. For a few dollars less, he had his corn and I had my cactus.

I went through a lot to get that last bottle. We were out of money; I was down to my last ten bucks. Joe had to borrow $20 from Black Jackie so we’d have enough for both bottles. There was no money for a taxi, so I had to walk to Westgate. There’d been a nor’easter with high winds and heavy snow all night and into the morning. There were no sidewalks, only snowbanks the size of mountains. I had to walk all the way there in a busy four-lane street. This is outer Congress. Everyone out there is trying to get somewhere else in a hurry. It was slightly disconcerting, but I made it to Shaw’s OK. I went in and got the bare necessities: a bottle of bourbon, tequila, and a roll of toilet paper.

When I left Shaw’s I walked down the shopping plaza’s plowed sidewalk, in front of the storefronts, remaining under the overhang as far as I could, heading in the direction of Logan Place. Then I walked behind the parked cars at the far edge of the parking lot. That’s when I heard a vehicle slowly rolling over the heavy layer of frozen snow. It was coming from behind me. I turned around just in time to see a car buried in more than a foot of snow drive right into me. Other than a spot the size of a saucer on the windshield, the only snow cleared off this vehicle was that which fell off when we collided. The driver stopped, popped his head out the window to see what he’d hit, then sped out of the parking lot! 

There I was, standing in the Westgate Shopping Center’s parking lot, waving my fist in the direction of the hit-and-run driver with a jug of bourbon in one hand, tequila and toilet paper swinging in a bag held by the other. It was a tense and treacherous return trip with the traffic at my back, but I made it.

So, I had a whole bottle of tequila. Why wasn’t I drinking it? 

“I don’t wanna drink anymore,” I said.

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Chapters 14 and 15 from Book IV of an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

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