Chapter Thirteen: A Visit
“The tears run down his cheeks. I would like to wipe them away but my handkerchief is too dirty.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Most people living on the street these days have smart phones that connect them to the Web, but not many of the Crew owned a phone. We were middle-aged homeless drunks, and most of us had little motivation to get one. Still, I had Toni and wanted to keep in touch, even though I’d left her behind in Biddeford. I imagined our separation would be temporary and brief.
As well as my lifeline to love, that phone was my address book, alarm clock, photo gallery, computer, calendar, museum, and much, much more. Perhaps most importantly, it was our jukebox. We’d sit and listen to that little speaker with nostalgic and sentimental memories, sharing stories from our pasts and getting to know one another more intimately. Music is powerful that way. It moves men like the faith that moves mountains. And you don’t even have to bring a shovel.
I was alone on a bench at Preble Street, listening to Hank Williams and missing my father, when Joe Blaze rolled up.
“Kenny,” Blaze said, “Dad’s in the hospital. They brought him up to State Street.”
Blaze called him Dad, but when Joe was born, Trake wasn’t even old enough to spit seed. It was just an affectionate title Joe had adopted, as had many of the younger generation on the Block. It was a term of endearment.
“We’re going up to see him,” he said. “Grab your bag.”
I didn’t even hesitate. Like I said, I was thinking about my dad at the time, and if Joseph Lionel Blais thought of Mark Stephen Thompson in such a way as to assign him that honorific, I owed all three of them that level of respect, my father included. I believe we send a little something to everyone when we bring a little something to anyone. And I’d already grown to love Trake. I grabbed my bag and we headed for Mercy.
The walk to Mercy Hospital on State Street isn’t terribly long, but Joe Blaze and I were terribly unhealthy, and it’s all uphill. For us, it was a hard haul.
When we figured out what room he was in, we went up to see the old ruffian. There was a woman sitting in a chair by the door when we entered. At first sight I thought she was hospital staff, but realized quickly that it was Mark’s ex-wife. She looked confused, concerned, by his two visitors. We were unfamiliar to her.
She introduced herself, politely and reservedly. Joe Blaze introduced us in a gracious and personable manner. He may have been a killer, but he’s also a gentleman. Then she asked us a question.
“Oh, do you two have houses?”
Again, Joe may have been a killer, when he was young, but this veiled insinuation damaged his dignity and depleted his humanity, low as it already was. That’s hard to do. It had about the same effect on me. Words are powerful that way. They wear on a man, the way streams erode mountains.
She also grilled us to find out if we’d brought him booze. We had, but it was clearly a wasted effort. She wasn’t letting him drink.
I looked over at Mark, all cleaned up and sober, handsomely smiling at me. I went to him and hugged him, carefully, as if I might somehow break this person, this man who, I would discover over time, is the embodiment of Power in a frail human frame.
“I brought you something,” I said. I had downloaded a particular song for the occasion, The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I didn’t know exactly why yet, but I knew it was special to him.
Mark put the phone to his ear and quietly listened. Losing the battle with gravity, tears trail-marked the old soldier’s hardened cheeks. When the song was over, he handed me back my miniature jukebox, he and Blaze shared a two-handed handshake, and we left. Blaze was still visibly upset. Mark’s ex may not have noticed, but I did.
Back on the Block, Joe and I spun beers in the Preble Street tradition and listened to some outlaw country music, both of us having been raised in that tradition and both being outlaws. It wasn’t very long before I lifted my head from the screen of my little jukebox and discovered Mark standing in front of us. He had gone AMA, Against Medical Advice, which is a sort of AWOL from the hospital. But there’s no dishonor in ditching out of a place like that. Even if you were dying, it would seem like the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want to die in a hospital room.
Chapter Fourteen: The Portland Club
“It was not any recognition of their beauty and their significance that attracted us, but the communion, the feeling of a comradeship with the things and events of our existence…”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
As Thanksgiving approached, we were all looking forward to it —it’s a great holiday for the homeless. The Crew was to have dinner at The Portland Club, a classy private restaurant and function room on State Street.
Everyone was drinking, even me, and I was on felony probation. When we left for the club there were fifteen of us. By the time we arrived there were only five: Bobby Chops, Debbie Blue Eyes, Mikey Glasses, Trake and me.
We’d started out at the Resource Center. Bobby and Debbie had been fighting and were still fighting. I don’t know what about, other than it wasn’t anything worth the trouble. Debbie Blue Eyes, as she’d come to be known among the Crew, was pretty ferocious when she got drunk. She was a biter, and a spitter, and an all-around scrapper. She was sick of Bob and she was really stirring things up. She tried to bite him, but Bob sensed it coming and snapped his arm away.
“See!” Foxy shouted, waving his arms around, a guitar in each hand. “This is what happens when you throw a girl in the mix!”
Debbie spat at Handsome Bob.
“Fox, you want me to carry one of those for you?” I offered.
“For another forty-five days?” he shouted at me.
It had only been forty. I’d been counting. I tend to do that in jail. I didn’t correct him. He just walked off, angry, and evidently done with the voyage.
“OK, Deb,” said Bob, and he walked away, too. Then Jackie got pissed. She was already pissed because Jay Becker was in jail again for stealing a beer. All they ever did was fight and fuck, but she must have found one or the other enjoyable because she was even more of a bitch when he wasn’t around. She talked Rick into leaving with her. They tried to lure Debbie into going, but she was clinging to Trake like Velcro. This was the way it went until finally it was just the five of us.
Bobby Chops soon had me laughing so hard I couldn’t care less about the quarrels of the Crew. The Preble Street romance has never been any different. It sucks being alone in such a harsh environment, but I’d rather be alone than fighting with some significant other. There’s very little I find significant enough to fight about, and it isn’t relationship stuff. I might fight about politics, but I try to be reasonable even then.
Bobby came up with his own nickname, “Chops,” to distinguish himself from the Bobby we already had. The name referred to the enormous sideburns that filled both sides of his face. He was taller than me, six foot four or better. He was very slender, though. I probably had eighty pounds on him.
When we got to the door of The Portland Club, Chops was giving me a little stand-up routine he called “The Precarious Pimp.” He acted it out as the pimp’s side of a telephone conversation, holding his hand to his head, thumb against his ear, little finger miming the mouthpiece.
“Yolanda! Yolanda!” he shouted. “Where my money?” He paused. “You s’posed to be back an hour ago!” His voice becoming slightly more reasonable, he continued, “You know what time it is?” More softly, “Yeah, but…” Starting to sound unsure, “Well, how long?” Stammering, “Yes… but… yeah…” Confidence now gone, “But, you are coming back?” Then, apologetically, “OK. Well, as long as you’re back by morning.” And, at last, in complete submission, “Sure. Nine o’clock works for me. Oh, you said noon, not nine?That’s fine. Sure. OK, baby. I’ll see you then? Yolanda? Yolanda. Hmm. She must’ve hung up.”
I was laughing my ass off again. Bobby Chops could be a pretty funny guy.
When we got inside the club, I was more than impressed — shocked, really. The setting was simply beautiful. There was a huge dining room with dozens of round tables, all with pretty place settings and linen tablecloths. There was a baby grand piano with a guy softly playing classical music. There was a gigantic spread, a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat, with turkey and stuffing and all the fixings, from cranberry sauce to green bean casserole. There were normal people and homeless people. There were little boys in shiny suits with ties and little girls in floral-print dresses with shiny white shoes. Even the lighting in the room was warm and inviting.
It was a really grand meal and we ate till we were ready to bust. Trake ate until he fell asleep face-down in his mashed potatoes and gravy, which freaked some people out (even Mikey Glasses) because they thought he would drown. I had to calm them down. I explained he wasn’t going to suffocate because he didn’t breathe through his face like we do; Mark breathes through the hole in his throat. And there was no chance of waking him until he’d had at least fifteen minutes of sleep.
I promised everyone I’d get him up and out before I left. I wanted to finish my meal. The room felt a little less comfortable now that everybody was looking at us. Even though some folks had exquisite manners and politely turned away when I looked at them, I knew we were making people uneasy.
After dinner we headed back to the Block, stopping to rest on a bench on Congress Street. While we were sitting there a group of well dressed adults and children approached us offering plates of free food. I declined. I’d just eaten in a single hour what I would usually eat in a week. Everyone else politely accepted the grub. It looked pretty good — nothing like we’d just eaten, of course, but decent.
Then they handed out some pieces of paper to the five of us. It was a Christian tract, one of those fire-and-brimstone comic strips that explained how and why we were going to Hell. I looked up at the little kids. They were dressed much like the children I’d seen earlier: suits with ties and pretty dresses with shiny white shoes.
Suddenly, I lost it. I stood up and started knocking the plates out of my friends’ hands, shouting, “This wasn’t free food! Don’t eat it! This is not charity!”
Then I noticed they were recording all this with a cell phone. “We didn’t say you could record us,” I snapped at the guy with the phone-camera. “Here: Get this!” I said, sticking my middle finger in his lens.
Then I looked at the children again. “Kids, don’t let them tell you you’re going to Hell. God isn’t like that. Don’t you believe them!”
I handed the tract to the preacher. “You should take this back,” I said. “I don’t wanna pick up a littering charge on Thanksgiving. I’m having a hard enough time not throwing Christians into the street right now.”
I don’t know what came over me. I just can’t stand the thought of corrupting kids’ consciences before they’ve even developed. People need to develop their own consciences and their own faiths, their own relationship with God.
“I’m leaving. I don’t know what you’re doing,” I said to my friends. They all got up and left with me.
“Gee, Kenny,” Debbie Blue Eyes said as we walked away. “I’ve never seen you upset like that before.”
I didn’t try to explain myself. I couldn’t.
My struggle for freedom didn’t go well. In fact, I was arrested the next day and ended up in jail for almost a year. Maybe I pissed God off. Maybe I am going to Hell. I didn’t believe it, but I didn’t know, either. My conscience was corrupted beyond the point of clarity.
I got out of jail before the next Thanksgiving, but I didn’t make it back to The Portland Club. It would be three years before I had dinner there again.
Chapter Fifteen: Black Friday
“We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
That night Debbie Blue Eyes had some sort of emotional episode. Maybe because she’d been nesting in Handsome Bob’s new and improved bush and suddenly realized she’d be sleeping outside tonight. Whatever the cause, we were sitting in a doorway on the Congress Street end of Preble and I had my arm around her shoulder, trying to console her as she sobbed. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was a woman I’d never seen before.
“Why don’t you get her a hotel room?” she asked — an absurd question had she not been offering a hundred dollar bill in her other hand. I quickly and politely took the cash.
This was a powerful gesture. I had never been gifted a hundred dollar bill before, especially from a stranger. However, it’s not enough for a hotel room in Portland. Had we traveled for a cheaper hotel room, there would have been those expenses, as well. But the gift had stopped Debbie’s tears. We went to get booze.
On the way to the store we ran into Trake. He had also just gotten a hundred-dollar hit. He said he had plenty of beer and we should go with him. We were easily persuaded.
The three of us slept in the ATM lobby next to Starbucks on Exchange Street. In the morning I still had the unbroken bill, so I went into the coffee shop to break it. I ordered a six-dollar coffee and handed the lady the hundred. She apologized and said she couldn’t break the bill. I couldn’t fathom how a place that sells six-dollar coffees all day, every day, doesn’t open with a drawer containing enough cash to do this, but I was polite and apologetic myself, explaining it was all the money I had. She wished me “Happy Holidays” and gifted me the coffee. I hadn’t really wanted it in the first place, but I probably enjoyed the cup more knowing it hadn’t cost me six bucks. It was a very nice gesture.
The three of us headed to the Resource Center for breakfast, marveling at the generosity and compassion the holidays bring and wondering why it doesn’t carry on into the daily grind of American life. Maybe we wouldn’t call it the grind if people were just a bit gentler with one another.
We sat on the benches after breakfast, like any other day. We had a little money but we hadn’t struck it rich. We weren’t much better off in the long measure of things.
One of the methods junkies in Portland use to support their disease is to steal bottles of booze from a store, usually a supermarket, and sell them to drunks at the Resource Center. The holidays don’t ease the daily grind for them. They still need dope, they still steal to get it, and there are still drunks who need the booze. This particular day, we were the drunks. We had the money when the guy came up and asked if we wanted a half gallon of Jack Daniel’s for twenty bucks. Yes. Yes is the answer.
We sat around all day putting down bourbon, following the migratory flow, and waiting for the Christmas Tree lighting up the street in Monument Square, which was to take place after dusk. By the time dinner rolled around, Mark and I had killed half of the half gallon and I was trashed. We ate and walked up Preble to the square.
There were thousands of people at the lighting event. The tree was pretty. The music was joyous. People were celebrating and happy. I genuinely had a lot of fun. But somehow I lost Trake. He dissipated into the quantum fog again. Sometimes I think he should change his name from Mark to Quark.
I went looking for him. I didn’t find him. What I did find was a guitar. I ran into Foxy. He was in the bus shelter by the square. I started playing and making a little money. There were still a lot of people out and about. It was Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year.
As I was playing love songs for little old ladies and kids and whoever else passed by, a random guy walked up and asked for — practically demanded — a cigarette. I took out my pack and found I had one and a half cigarettes left — well, a cigarette and a good snipe. I told him he could have the snipe. He grumbled about it and I offered up the old adage: “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
He didn’t like that. Maybe he was insulted by a homeless busker calling him a “beggar.” He punched me in the nose. Blood splashed the ground and poured down the front of my coat. I responded with a few quick punches. The guy hit the ground in front of me and balled up in the fetal position, going into some sort of seizure. His head was bouncing off the ground, his hands and feet spasming rapidly. I just stood over him, vacantly staring down, not knowing what to do.
Foxy yelled, “You better get out of here, Kenny! They’re all on their phones!” I turned around and noticed a crowd had gathered. Foxy was right: nearly all of them were on their phones. The cops would be there soon. I decided to beat feet.
I didn’t run, but I walked pretty briskly. I headed for the Resource Center. I didn’t know where else to go. I hadn’t quite made it when a cop whipped down Preble the wrong way on that one-way street. I didn’t know it was a cop at first. He jumped out of an SUV and grabbed my right arm. I reacted defensively by clenching my left hand — which may already have been clenched, since I was intensely stressed — and almost swung my fist. It was a check swing. I realized it was a cop just in time.
“Yup. You’re the guy I’m looking for,” he said.
“How the hell am I the guy you’re looking for?” After all, I had just been assaulted. I was attacked and had been defending myself.
The cop didn’t answer. He tried to get me in handcuffs, but he couldn’t. I wasn’t having it. He had me by the arm but I was pulling him all over the place and he couldn’t land the cuff. So he put his cuffs away, pulled out his baton and began beating me across my knees and shins, breaking my skin open in places — including a nasty abrasion on my left shin that later became badly infected.
After a few minutes of this his backup arrived. The next thing I knew there were multiple cops and EMTs surrounding me. At least two cops had tasers aimed at me and one of them barked, “Submit! Or you will be tased.”
“Alright. OK,” I said. “I’ll kneel down. Just tell me: Why are you arresting me?”
“For resisting arrest.”
“That’s not a real charge!” I protested.
“Sure it is,” one of them said. “It’s called ‘refusing to submit.’”
“But you need a reason to make me submit!” Which was true. But I was on probation. I had sacrificed my rights. They didn’t know that, though. They didn’t need to know. They were going to take me in no matter what and had no qualms about violating my rights, real or imagined.
After the cops and the EMTs had a good laugh at my expense, including the destruction of my brand new Levi’s (“Maybe the city will buy you a new pair”), they threw me in the paddy wagon. When we got to the Cumberland County Jail — which is a brutal ride when they want it to be, and this was one of those — they mocked me some more as they pulled me out of the back.
“We don’t know what you’re making such a big deal about,” one said. “You’ll be out on Monday.”
“Not this Monday,” I responded. “I’m on probation!”
My charges were Refusing to Submit and Assault.The latter was for assault against the cop, not the guy on Congress Street, who was the only one I actually hit — in self-defense. The police report would have been comical if it wasn’t a travesty of justice. It read like it was written by a nine-year-old making up a story about a fight that never happened in an attempt to sound cool. It was full of excuses for why the first officer on the scene couldn’t get me cuffed. At the end of his piss-poor piece of fiction he said he tripped me to the ground — a blatant lie. I kneeled because I saw two stun guns aimed at me and one of the cops threatened to zap me. I never assaulted the cop, but I definitely refused to submit.
My PO wasn’t at all impressed. I received a full revocation of my probation. They tried to give me twenty-two months of state time, but my court-appointed lawyer got it down to thirteen months and no probation upon release. To the dismay of the DA, my attorney also persuaded the judge to split my sentence in order to keep me in the Cumberland County Jail. Of course, that deal wasn’tupheld on their end. The criminal justice system isn’t Just. One month after sentencing, I was transferred back to the Middle of Nowhere.
It took three months to get sentenced, so I had four months in when they shipped me to YCJ. Before the transfer I occasionally saw others from the Block. Just before Christmas I looked up from my oatmeal and recognized a face across the table. It was a face I didn’t care to see.
They called him Pony Tail Jay, to distinguish him from Jay Becker, and just before Thanksgiving he had also gotten a hundred-dollar hit. He showed up on the Block with a bottle. When I asked him for a shot he told me to fuck off. “I don’t even know you,” he said. He didn’t know me, but I knew that was a douchebag thing to say.
Now he was across from me eating breakfast and looking sick as hell. I didn’t care in the least. He deserved it. I guess he knew me now — people look for familiar faces in jail, mostly due to the loneliness of the place — because he started the conversation.
“Did you hear about Jay Becker?” he asked. I liked that Jay, so I was curious enough to care, at least a little.
“What’s he back in here?” I asked. Jay Becker had been at CCJ when I got there, but I knew he’d been released.
“No. He’s dead,” Pony Tail Jay said matter-of-factly.
It seemed impossible. Jay Becker? Dead? After talking to several more people I knew from the Block in the days and weeks that followed, I concluded it was true. Jay Becker had overdosed on heroin and died. The very last time I’d seen him we’d made a pact. We both promised we’d never use dope again. He broke his vow and paid for his sin with the only possession he had left: his life.
Chapter Sixteen: The Middle of Nowhere
“There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Now that I’m housed, I often find myself alone, but seldom find myself lonely. In jail, I was rarely alone but almost always lonely.
When you’re homeless or in jail, you have little choice regarding the people who surround you, and you often don’t like many of them. I have been locked up for months at a time in less than seventy square feet of space with a toilet, a desk, two bunks, and a random man I couldn’t stand. I’ve eaten three meals a day for months on end while sitting across the table from someone who made my stomach turn. And I’ve spent many months — almost an entire year once — without any contact from the people I knew outside. It’s very humbling to realize you don’t mean enough to even one person for him or her to pick up a pen, let alone take time to visit or put a few dollars on the books for you.
Whoever said you get “three hots and a cot” in jail wasn’t doing time at YCJ. You’re almost always cold and hungry. “The food is terrible and they don’t give you enough of it” is a painfully true joke I often shared over dinner. The boxes in the kitchen are marked INSTITUTIONAL USE ONLY or INMATE CONSUMPTION ONLY, and all the meat is the same: mechanically separated poultry.
I have worked in the jail kitchen. If there’s not enough soup, add water. If there’s not enough chili, add water. If there’s not enough pasta, overcook it (add water). Well, water doesn’t have any nutritional value, and if they use an eight-ounce spoodle (a classic Aramark invention) when you’re supposed to get a ten-ounce portion, and the nutritional and caloric values have been further reduced by the added water, then they’re basically starving the entire jail population.
But they will sell you ramen noodles for a dollar a package if you’re still hungry (add water). If you’re cold, they’ll sell you thermal underwear or a sweatshirt. If your skin is irritated by the uniform you’re forced to wear, they’ll sell you a t-shirt or, if you develop a rash, hydrocortisone (not available in all jails). If you have a stiff neck — and you will — a one-dollar pillow can be yours for just ten dollars (pillows, although ergonomically necessary during sleep, are not provided). They’ll sell you a cup, without which one is likely to dehydrate, because even with the extra water in the food, you still don’t get enough food to stay hydrated. They’ll sell you shower shoes, without which you will likely get fungus. They’ll sell you shampoo, without which you will definitely get dandruff.
There is no privacy in jail — not when you sleep, shower, shit. You are never truly alone, but it’s easy to feel that way. I’ve seen many men cry and have cried myself from the desperation of loneliness that incarceration causes. You miss your kids. You miss your girlfriend (or boyfriend). Maybe you miss your mom. No one would fault a man for being lonesome — it’s entirely out of your control. But it’s a hundred times worse when your loved ones have no desire to connect with you or share your company, no concern for your health, your hunger, your comfort or your safety. I’ve never felt more alone than that.
Last Christmas, my daughter Rachel visited me at my new apartment and brought a pile of housewarming gifts. I also got a Pirate Ship comic book, in which I’m a character (thanks, Handsome Bob, but I re-gifted it to Rachel, who re-gifted it to her brother Bowman), and a keychain from a worker at Preble Street who organizes the writing group these days (to the extent that anything can be organized there).
The keychain is in the shape of a star and it says, “One person can make a difference!” She didn’t plan to give me that gift. She said she went into the office on Christmas Eve to find “something” she could give me (the Christmas Tree in the day room had been considered the gift for all the homeless people there). There’s some irony involved, as I’d just been discussing with her the loneliness of jail, and the quote brought up a memory from YCJ.
The kitchen supervisor at YCJ — Sheila, a good girl but not very bright and therefore easily manipulated by inmates and staff — once told me, “One person can’t make a difference.” That really is a direct quote. I brought up MLK and Abe Lincoln and she hemmed and hawed without conceding the argument.
I remembered how, when it came time for my release from YCJ, they found a “hold” on me and wouldn’t let me go. Then they asked if I still wanted to work in the kitchen. I said I wanted to go home. I said I would sit and freeze and starve with the rest of the pod and play cards instead.
Well, when the kitchen crew came back from work, this kid said to me, “Ken, we missed you in the kitchen, man. You’re like our Martin Luther King.” So yeah, one person can make a difference, even if only one person notices.