Chapter Nine: To the Homeless and the Hoboes
“And we saw that there was nothing of their world left.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Mark and I arrived at the Dungeon and rolled up the door, snuck underneath and shut it behind us, sealing out the wind. We headed down the two flights of stairs, maybe a dozen steps total. I tossed my bag on the cold concrete and started making my “bed.”
“What’s this?” I heard his raspy, damaged voice say.
Trake was holding a cardboard sign, one like you might see someone flying on the side of the road, pleading for “Help.” This one was addressed, presumably, to us. “To the Homeless and the Hoboes:” it read.
The author went on to say we weren’t welcome or appreciated there. This was not our house. It stated that they were sick of us, and that the police had been notified, and we would be arrested if we slept in this place ever again. It was a long message and poorly written, full of grammatical errors and misspelled words.
I took out a Sharpie — which I wished had been a red marker, but it was blue — and began grading. I marked it for spelling, form, sentence structure and content, and gave it a “D minus.” Only their effort saved them from a flat “F,” and they had gotten their point across: We had to go.
“‘Hoboes,’” I said. “I wonder if they meant Bob’s old band. I’m still marking it as a misspelled word.”
Mark had a great laugh at all this, then we lay down to sleep. Joe Blaze was already sleeping. He probably hadn’t seen the sign. I hadn’t. Signs like that don’t draw much attention; more often, they divert it.
A voice called down the Dungeon stairs: “Did you fuck my wife?”
“Everybody else was doing it,” I answered defensively.
It was Amanda. She always used that gag back then. When she and Mr. Charlie and CJ came down, I showed them the graded sign. We all had another good laugh, realizing all the while that our cover had been blown, and this spot blown up with it. The Day of the Dungeon had come to an end. We all fell asleep there anyway. We had nowhere else to go and it was two in the morning.
Of all possible mornings, the next morning happened to be the one when the entire skeleton crew nesting in the Dungeon overslept. I awoke to the sound of the door rolling open. When I opened my eyes, CJ and I were face to face, less than two inches apart. We stared at each other with panicked expressions. I held my index finger to my lips to gesture: Shhh.
The person who came down the stairs wasn’t a homeless person. It wasn’t a cop. It wasn’t one of the upstairs tenants, or any of the employees of the head shop that is Freak Street. It was the owner of the property, the landlord, the man with the Power.
I jumped up and took command of the platoon. “Wake up!” I ordered. “Everybody up! Gather your things. And don’t forget to pick up any trash. It should look like you were never here when we leave.”
It was not at all certain that we would be leaving. Technically, I think we may have broken and entered this man’s property, and were presently criminally trespassing.
“I’m sorry we’re in your space, sir,” I said. “We had nowhere else to go and it was cold. And thank you for not being angry with us.”
I had no reason to be certain this big man wasn’t angry with us, but thought it unlikely he’d written the message on the sign. If he was that poor a writer, he couldn’t have afforded the clothes he was wearing.
The lord didn’t speak. He just nodded and walked past us, to one of the three doors down there that was always locked at night. I had no idea what was behind those doors, and no expectation I’d ever know, so I’d never even wondered. Before he closed the door, I got a peek inside. It was a little office, with a desk and a desktop computer.
As we were gathering our meager belongings and preparing to vacate the premises, the door opened. The lord’s eyes caught mine and we each gazed for a moment through the windows of the other’s soul. He reached out his hand. “Here,” he said, handing me a ten dollar bill. “Why don’t you get your friends a coffee or something.”
As money goes, it wasn’t much, but in other respects, it was a lot. It meant, first of all, that we weren’t going to jail. It also said he was sympathetic to our struggle. And, to me, it said that when he’d looked into the window of my soul, he saw a human animal, not just a beast.
Chapter Ten: Average Joes
“They look just as kindly as our own peasants…”
— Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
We had nowhere to sleep, so we decided to try the Dungeon one more time. It was Blaze, Trake, Mr. Charlie and me. We got there relatively early and crashed quickly. It was just after two in the morning — about the time Mark and I usually arrived — when we were rousted by half a dozen cops.
They didn’t arrest us, but they were very clear: the next time they caught us down there, they would. So we left. We had to go. But we still had nowhere to go. We headed toward Commercial Street, toward the sea, the Great and Mighty Atlantic.
We ended up huddled in a doorway. There was a light overhead with a motion sensor that caused it to keep turning on and off. This made it hard to rest, which, naturally, tripped the sensor. Mark and Joe said they were taking Charlie for a walk and going sniping. That’s how broke we were: we didn’t even have tobacco, which costs roughly two dollars. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. I hadn’t gotten any more shut-eye than they had; I just felt like I couldn’t get up.
It was about four-thirty in the morning when the maintenance man showed up. He was responsible for the entire building, which included offices, shops, bars, a pizza place.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, in a firm tone, but gently. “I need you to get up now.”
The others had only been gone a few minutes, just long enough for me not to know where they were or what direction they’d taken. I gave myself about five seconds to wallow in my misery, then began gathering my things.
“Sorry to be in your space,” I said. “Thanks for not being a dick about it. And thanks for not just calling the cops.”
I spoke to him with a more familiar tone than the one I’d used to address the lord. This man dressed like me. He looked like a regular guy.
“There’s no rush,” he said, watching me struggle to get upright. “You look pretty comfortable down there.”
What he really meant was: You look next to death, like you might not be able to get up, like you might not make it.
“One thing there’s not a lot of on the street is comfort,” I replied.
“Oh, I know that,” he said. “I was homeless myself once for about a year.”
A year on the street can seem like a lifetime. Some people don’t survive that long. For them, it becomes their lifetime.
“After my divorce,” he continued, “I lost everything: my wife, my kids, my home, my car; shit, even my dog.”
Holy shit! That was my story precisely. Well, I didn’t have a dog, but I had two or more of all of those other things, except the wife. I had only been married once. What a mistake that was.
“Yeah,” I said. “You just summed up my experience in a couple sentences.”
“Then I ended up in jail for about a year,” he added.
“Me too! I mean, I got two years in jail, but I didn’t serve that much. You know…”
“I wanna give you something,” he said. Retrieving his wallet, he opened it and discovered it was empty. He looked disappointed.
“No, man,” I said. “You don’t have to give me anything. I didn’t ask for anything. You’ve given me enough by being kind.” I meant every word. It was all true. I felt human. I felt a genuine connection to another human — no strings attached, no stress or obligation, just two ordinary, average Joes.
“No,” he said. “I told you I wanted to give you something and I mean what I say. Come on.”
By now I was fully packed and on my feet, so I walked with him. He took me to the nearest ATM, withdrew a twenty-dollar bill and gave it to me.
On the way there, he noticed something I hadn’t: a pile of human feces right next to the building where he found me. “Man,” he said with dismay. “I have to clean that up.”
I later learned that had I not been so slow to get myself and my things together, another average Joe — Blaze — would have been caught in a compromising position, literally with his pants down.