News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience

by | Jan 9, 2020

illustrations/Katy Finch and Bob Bergeron

Introductions and Chapters 1, 2 & 3

Chapters 4, 5 & 6

Chapter Seven: Tough Guys

“They seem nervous and fearful, though most of them are big fellows with beards…”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front 

The guy with the guitar was Foxy. Tall and slender, with white beard and hair, he wore a leather jacket almost as worn out as he was. His boots and jeans weren’t in much better shape, and his hands were calloused more by hard labor than the fretboard.   

Benny told Foxy, and everybody else, how I’d taught his son to play guitar. I just went along with it; at least, I didn’t say it wasn’t true. But that put me on the spot. Now I ​had​ to play. Which I finally did, for the first time in six months.

One thing I’ve learned performing over the years, especially when put on the spot, is that if I play something I wrote, people are less likely to notice when I make a mistake. I just have to sing the right song. And that’s exactly what I did. I played one called ​“Dreams,”​ which is sort of a homeless ballad. I suppose that’s why I played it. And I really put my heart into it.

I hadn’t been looking at the Crew while I played. I always look away. I guess I’m self-conscious about my music. When you’re sharing something as personal as a song like this, it’s as if you’re disrobing your soul, exposing yourself, your ​true​ privates. But it’s probably what I do best, despite the awkwardness. 

When I finally looked at them, ​this crew of pirates, they were all crying. I couldn’t believe it. They looked like murderers and bank robbers, street punks likely to have a gun in one boot and a blade in the other. Mark (Trake) was the only one under six feet tall, and he was especially rugged and gruff-looking. These were tough guys, guys who looked like they couldn’t be broken. 

The thing is, they looked this way because they had been broken. Their lives had been destroyed by the only things that can break an outlaw or a pirate, or perhaps make one. Whatever those things are, they heard them in “Dreams.”  

What now? Stick with originals. You don’t plant carrots where the ground is best for potatoes. I went right into another one, “Tequila Memory,” which, like “Dreams,” soon became a regular request. The punch line of the song: “It’s tequila to kill a memory​.”

I made some friends on the Block that day, friends who became like family to me. I’ve slept outside with each and every one of those tough guys called the Crew, huddled together just to survive the night.

A few of us walked to the Big Apple that afternoon. These guys were mathematicians with unusual units of calculation. They figured by intervals of a dollar thirty-seven on the Block: the price of a Natty Daddy, the biggest bang for a buck and change. I learned later that if you were willing to walk a little farther, to the Rite Aid on Congress, the price dropped to a dollar nine. That was the unit calculated by the mathematicians uptown. 

On the way, we came across three people on the sidewalk: a crazy old drunk lady sitting on a walker, berating most passersby, a young, very pretty Filipino woman and that woman’s angry and abrasive Irish boyfriend. Trake introduced me to Barbara, Kristen and Ryan. 

Trake seemed to be about the only person Barbara and Ryan didn’t despise. Ryan’s girl, Kristen, just seemed sweet and nice to everyone. We didn’t hang out with them that day, to my relief. We got the beers and headed back to the benches, where the Crew proceeded to spin them. I passed when the cans came my way. 

I checked into the shelter again that night, as ordered by Probation. It was roughly the same experience as the night before, and I sat outside Preble Street on the steps again till dawn. I wouldn’t be able to keep that up for long (​people require a certain amount of sleep), but I knew I’d have to be ungodly tired to ever sleep inside the shelter. 

Around six in the morning I saw the first member of the Crew I’d met the day before. Enter Joe Blaze. 

His father’s name was Lionel Joseph Blais and he died when Joseph Lionel Blais was a boy. Joe was raised by his mother, who treated him like the man of the house, letting him drink and smoke and such, so long as he did the work of the man of the house: feeding the animals and cleaning the pens, cutting and splitting the firewood, mowing the lawn, taking out the trash. Joe dropped out of school and assumed that role.

Joe Blaze was a roughneck from the start, born reckless, maybe even dangerous. Ornery and mean from a young age, he picked up a manslaughter charge before he turned eighteen. Joe had a little honey living with him at the time. She was too young to be anything special and he was too young to know. One day he came home and caught her in the sack with somebody else.

“I’m gonna let you put your boots on, boy,” Joe told the guy, “but I’m not gonna let you leave. And a man deserves to have his boots on when he dies.”

Well, Blaze did more than a dime piece for keeping up his end of the deal. They sent him to Thomaston for the bid, the old prison Stephen King used as a model for Shawshank, a place where very few find redemption. 

All Joe Blaze had known before then was the liberty of Reason. What he learned after that was time. As a prisoner, you’re often treated unreasonably, with little or no recourse. And if you treat a man like an animal long enough, he can turn into a monster.

Chapter Eight: Dances With Drunks

“The majority do nothing to them, just ignore them. Occasionally, when they are too groveling, it makes a man mad and then he kicks them.”

— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

If any of the Crew was truly a pirate, it was Joe. After spending the rest of his teens and all of his twenties in prison, Portland became his home. He worked fishing and assorted illicit jobs to support his outlaw habits, and built an infamy his name still carries. 

A good-looking man, Blaze wasn’t any “pretty boy.” He stood over six feet tall, broad at the shoulders and narrow at the hips, with big mitts and boots a man didn’t want to see coming his way too quickly. He wore a white goatee and mustache, as a pirate might be painted.

“You play a hell of a guitar, Kenny,” Blaze said. He took a haul off a high-gravity beer he had tucked inside his coat and handed it to me.

“No thanks, Joe,” I said, politely. “I’m not drinking these days.” I couldn’t bring myself to say the words ​I don’t drink. I still have trouble saying that. People challenge me all the time with the question, “‘You mean, you’re not ever gonna drink again?”​ I don’t have a uniform answer. I never claimed I wouldn’t ever drink again. I would never claim that. Sometimes I say, ​“I’m not drinking tonight,” or, ​“No, I am going to drink again, just not today.”

If I tell myself I’m going to drink again — I can pick up a drink any time I want — then I haven’t committed to anything. I’m simply choosing not to drink right now. I also don’t mark a calendar. I’m not sure what the date of my last drink was. I know ​roughly​ when it was, and that’s more than enough for me.

When Joe Blaze handed me that beer, I was on probation. I didn’t want to go back to jail. I wanted a place where I could bring Toni, and thought I could accomplish this task fairly quickly. That really is what I believed. But I was going to drink again, soon. I made it through that day, and survived two more probation visits. 

It was the next day, Thirsty Thursday, when I drank again. By that night, Foxy had heard several of my songs and was hooked. He insisted I busk the Old Port with him. We’d split whatever we made fifty-fifty. I was broke and easily convinced. I’d be needing cigarettes, or at least tobacco.

The Old Port is Portland’s waterfront district, a tourist trap with a few working wharves still standing amid the shops, office buildings, restaurants, hotels and condos. It’s home to both the very rich and the very poor, but there’s no tin-shack line dividing the classes like you see in Johannesburg. This is America, the Great Melting Pot. The cream rises and the rest trickles down into the gutters. You can find homeless people sleeping in the Old Port doorways of million-dollar pads. 

We set up shop on Commercial Street in front of a closed store near a couple bars. This is a terrible spot for busking, but I didn’t know that then. These were what I call “bargain bars,”​ taverns where blue-collar locals who labor long hours for modest pay try to distract themselves with a few cheap beers from the fear just below their consciousness — the subliminal awareness that they’re one paycheck, one illness, one accident, or one costly night of excess away from sleeping with guys like us. They’re trying to save a buck, not give one away, ​especially​ to guys like us. Jeremy likes to quote George Carlin: “God put poor people here to scare the shit out of the middle class.”​ We were the embodiment of their nightmares. But Foxy said this was a good place to play and make money, so I had to ​try​ it out to ​find​ it out.

We were playing for about an hour before we got our first hit. It was two dollars. The very next person who passed dropped a handful of change. Maybe half an hour went by and someone dropped two or three dollars. So we were making about two dollars an hour, to split. Not very good money in the good ol’ USA.

Then Benny showed up with a long-haired Native American man they called Grey Wolf.​ They had a bag full of high-gravity. The three of them started passing one around. 

That’s how we drank in the streets: Everybody kicked in what money they had, one or two guys ran to the store, and we spun one beer at a time. There’s a good reason for this. If the cops rolled up on the Crew and only one container was open, only one person had to go to jail. It’s like a homeless version of the children’s game ​Hot Potato,​ or a less lethal kind of ​Russian Roulette. Sometimes the cops just made you ​dump it out. Legally, they can only ​make you dump an open container — better to lose one than five or six. But not all cops abide by the law. Sometimes you’re forced to dump them all, opening each can and pouring beer into the sewer.

While those three sat and spun the Daddies, I played for them. Actually, Foxy and Benny sat. Grey Wolf was dancing the night away. That was his gimmick, his ​hustle​. He’d just walk up to strangers and dance for them. This is some of the most unusual dancing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m not even sure it ​can be described. There’s a bounce to it, usually on the down beat. His arms swoop like wings and his long hair sways while his body weaves from side to side like a cobra or a fatter, drunken, Indian Axl Rose. Somehow he makes money doing this.

The bag of beer went pretty quickly and Foxy wanted more. I said I wanted my cut of the money. I could at least afford a bag of loose tobacco with it. So we divvied up our pathetic booty and Foxy sent the Indian and the Irishman off to the store, which was a good distance away. It would take them twenty or thirty minutes to complete the trip. It took about five minutes for Foxy to start worrying about his three dollars. Three dollars is a lot when it’s everything. 

They were back within half an hour with another bag full of beer. Benny had a five-dollar hit on the way there. Grey Wolf got a twenty-dollar hit on the way back. And, believe it or not, we’d made a twenty while they were gone. We now had forty dollars, a bag of booze, and a better feeling. 

I don’t know why, but for me that feeling made me think, ​It would be OK to have a drink.​ So I did. I drank and played and sang. Now I was comfortable and money started dropping from the sky. I’m convinced I play better with a couple drinks in me. Of course, there’s a ceiling that’s reached. As I approach it, my performance deteriorates along with my mental capacity. 

I was becoming more primal by the sip. I remember walking into an alley to take a piss, and I remember peeing there, too, but I don’t recall leaving the alley or even finishing that piss. 

In the next and final memory of that night, I’m inside the Oxford Street Shelter and Foxy is helping me to the counter. I couldn’t even walk on my own. “​Fox,” he said to the intake worker. “Reservation for two.”

Chapter Nine: A Time or Two, or Three

I woke up in the overflow shelter, the Resource Center’s day room. I had finally slept inside the building. I was lying next to Foxy, his guitar sandwiched between us. My first time … how romantic. 

But now I was worried: Would I smell like booze when I got to Probation? Was I going to be violated? Was I going back to jail? 

What had I done? This wasn’t a philosophical question. I had little recollection of the previous night. Reaching into my pocket I found three dollars. I needed smokes. I felt like shit. I couldn’t believe I’d fallen off the wagon. But I had. There was a gash on the back of my head. I must have toppled over backwards, probably while pissing in the alley. I went and got tobacco and headed back to Preble Street. I needed coffee, badly.

At the soup kitchen I kept wanting to ask people if I smelled like booze, but the only people I knew at the time were drunks and social workers. Someone who’s been drinking can’t usually tell if you smell like alcohol, and I didn’t want staff to know I’d violated my probation. I didn’t know whose side they were on, and there ​are​ sides to all of this. ​Cops and Robbers,​ another children’s game, was a real part of my adult world. 

I ate very lightly, got some coffee in me, washed up, brushed what was left of my teeth, and went to face my fear. It’s about a twenty-minute walk to the probation office on Washington Ave. It felt like walking the ​Green Mile​ to certain death — or at least imprisonment, which is almost as bad.

When I arrived, I discovered that Friday is probation day at the ​Cumberland County​ Courthouse, same as it is in York. My PO wasn’t in; she was in court. So I just signed my name and left. That was it. I wasn’t going to be going to jail that day. What a relief.

Now, a rational person, ​normal people, would simply not drink again. I am not rational once I drink. My thought processes, my​ ​behavioral patterns, are severely altered by alcohol. Rather than not wanting to drink, all I was thinking about was drinking. I could get away with it. I didn’t have to report again till Monday. I could drink all weekend! And that’s exactly what I did.

The Crew was ecstatic. It’s said that misery loves company. Another thing misery loves is music. Everyone​ was feeding me drinks, and I was on fire on the guitar. It was the real Kenny Wayne on the job now.

I don’t remember much else that happened Friday or Saturday, but I do recall an incident that Sunday night. I’d tried to contact Toni multiple times, to no avail. I became fairly furious fairly quickly. I knew the rules: I had left and she was at liberty. But she should still answer, or at least return my calls, text, something. 

Then I got a text from her number, but not from her. The language was wrong. There were grammatical errors and misspelled words. It was like a text from a first-grader. I knew exactly which moron she was sleeping with. 

So I called her uncle. He wasn’t sleeping with her, but it was two o’clock in the morning and I was crazy.

“I wanna talk to Toni.”

“She’s not here,” he said. “I’m not sure where she is.” 

“Don’t gimme that shit, Nate. I’m not fucking stupid.” 

He probably ​didn’t​ know. I didn’t even think he did. That wasn’t why I called. I just wanted to put fear into her world and I was going to use her family to do it. After all, her family was responsible for the misappropriation of my belongings. It was her family’s fault that she was the way she was. Toni was raised in a den of iniquity, all the adults around her shooting dope and smoking coke. Nate had been a close friend of her father, who died after years of heroin abuse. 

At the time of this call, I had full knowledge they were letting dealers trap out of their place: Girls turning tricks upstairs in Nate’s bed, then coming down to score dope in his living room. Hell, I’d been there just a week before and witnessed it all. That’s ​why​ I had to go.

“I asked you for one thing while I was in jail, Nate. I asked you to make sure my guitar was there when I got out. Now I’m in the streets with no way to make money! You’re lucky I don’t head to Biddo ​tonight​ and burn your fucking house down! With your family, your junkie friends and your drug dealers in it!”

I had lost it. I was crazy. I really was thinking about burning the place down. Then Trake came and put his arm around me and handed me a beer.

It wasn’t the idea of the beer that calmed me down. I was already drunk, and drinking had led me to this insane state of mind. It was the thought that Trake cared enough to put his arm around me. This guy who’d met me five days ago and barely knew me, this homeless man with whom I’d been drinking for three days straight, felt compassion for me and found no shame in expressing it. Trake reached out and reached me with his spirit of generosity and compassion. I hung up the phone and took the drink. 

2

I woke up Monday morning lying on a blanket with Benny and Trake in the parking lot across from the Resource Center. I had slept outside again, but this time I hadn’t checked into the shelter first— yet another probation violation. I was really racking ’em up. 

I opened my eyes and saw Foxy leaning over us. He handed me his guitar and a high-grav. I took the beer. 

I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking. I was just drinking. I’d reached out and grabbed the beer without the least consideration for my freedom. I had to report to Probation by noon. Accepting the drink was like accepting my fate.

Then I realized I had to pee, badly. I checked the time — well before eight, so the Resource Center was out. There was a chance they’d let me use the men’s room at Oxford Street Shelter, but not a good chance, and besides, I didn’t think I could make it that far. So I jumped a cement guardrail and pissed on the nearest building. A lady across the street began hollering at me. Embarrassed, I shouted, “Sorry!” and put myself away. 

We spent the day at Preble Street in typical fashion, drinking, eating, smoking and singing. I definitely wasn’t going to Probation. I developed another plan. It probably wouldn’t work, but showing up and blowing a point-two or a point-three definitely wouldn’t do. I’d just tell her I forgot. I’m only human — it could happen.

On our way back to the courtyard from lunch this crazy guy ran up to me and snapped my picture. “I have you now, you son of a bitch,” he cackled triumphantly. “You’re going back to jail!”

I didn’t know the guy. I didn’t know how he knew me, or that I’d been in jail. But then again, I didn’t know much of what I’d done the past few days. There were lapses in my memory, chunks of missing time. I pretty much knew I was going back to jail, but what this guy was talking about was a mystery. The Crew told me not to worry about him and kept coaxing my ego. “Play another one, Kenny Wayne!”

When the cops came I was sitting where I’d slept, ​on the blanket in the parking lot, playing guitar. One cop got out of his SUV and addressed me. “Did you urinate on the building right there?”

I was honest. I explained that it was early in the morning, when I couldn’t have made it to a proper place to go. I apologized and promised I would do my best to not let it happen again. I was promptly arrested and loaded into the paddy wagon, with Foxy’s guitar in hand.

That was my first arrest in the City of Portland and my second probation violation. It would be more than a month before anybody on the outside saw me, ​or that guitar, again.

3  

On Friday, Probation Day, I was sentenced. It was decided I would receive a partial revocation of probation. The initial charge was Indecent Behavior. The lady who saw me peeing claimed I exposed myself to her. (It was her husband who snapped my photo.) That was pled down to Public Indecency, although, were you to read my rap sheet, you’d see it records only the former, more serious charge, and makes no mention of the plea agreement. That charge brought me a five-day sentence. The probation violation, which was the charge, carried forty-five days, so I was going back to jail for several weeks, probation to continue upon release.

On Monday, York County came to transport me to YCJ. When the transport CO came from the property room carrying Foxy’s guitar, he looked baffled. “Well, this is a first,” he said.

“It’s not ​my​ first time,” I responded. “I’ve been arrested with a guitar before. I just never saw it again. It must be because this one’s broken.”

The guitar was pretty mangled. Joe Blaze had smashed it on a fire hydrant in front of the Resource Center. (The same hydrant from which Joe unscrewed the valve nut to whack Jay Becker over the head. Anything heavy enough or sharp enough is a weapon on the Block. Fortunately, Jay didn’t die and Blaze didn’t pick up another murder charge.) Apparently someone who was sick of Foxy playing the same two songs offered Joe ten dollars to smash it. Ten dollars can get you a liter of bourbon. That’s how that ten was spent, and Joe shared the booze with Foxy. I imagine that was a hard bottle for Foxy to swallow.

When I got to the YCJ intake I used my one phone call to contact Toni. I told her what had happened and we had a good laugh. She really got a kick out of the “indecent exposure” fiasco. It ​was​ pretty funny, being so ridiculous. Then I asked her, “So, are we through?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean, you’re living with ​him​.” 

“I can’t help it if someone else cares for me.” 

And so I was right. I really hadn’t known if she was living with him until then. The guard was telling me to hurry up and end the call. It was time to go to the pod.

“Listen, Toni,” I began, “I want you to remember this: Caring ​for​ someone and caring ​about​ someone are not the same thing, and caring about someone and loving​ someone certainly aren’t. ​I love you…” 

At precisely that moment, the CO depressed the button in the cradle of the old-fashioned YCJ intake phone, ending the call.

It was a pretty easy stint. I was getting adapted to doing time. I knew at least half the inmates and most of the guards. Even some of the guards begin to seem like your friends after awhile. 

They’re not your friends, though. It’s good to make yourself remember that. Like I said, there are sides to all of this. Behind the locked, heavy steel door is Us, and behind the badge is Them.

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