News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience

Chapter 3 of Book IV from an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

by | Oct 25, 2021

illustration/Katy Kinch

Chapter Three: A Different Beat

Handsome Bob abruptly became Handsome, Ornery & Mean Bob, and as he stormed off down the street it occurred to me, standing alone on the sidewalk, that​ it had been his idea to go to the art museum in the first place. 

I didn’t want to go alone. I spotted Trake and convinced him. Along the way we ran into Steven Bowie, by Starbucks. I told him we were headed to “Free Friday at the Art Museum.”

“I wanna go,” he said, shrugging his shoulders with his hands in his pants pockets. Steven Bowie is over six feet tall, but when he does that shrug and rocks side to side, his eyes honing in on yours but still shifting because of his rocking motion, his eager anticipation practically radiating, he can look like a little boy.

“You’re welcome to,” I said.

I always liked Stevie. He didn’t always like me. Well, at least he was a little suspicious of me at first. I called his girlfriend at the time Kissie Face. Her real name was Annie, and Bowie didn’t like the nickname. But he was there when she got it, in the courtyard that day, way back when Handsome Bob was still seeing Debbie Blue Eyes. She was sitting on a bench next to Annie. Bob and Bowie were egging the girls on, wanting them to put on a show. So the girls put on a show.

Debbie stood and pivoted toward Annie, then knelt on the bench, straddling her and wrapping her arms around her. She gently but firmly pulled Annie’s hair, drawing her head back, and they pressed their mouths together, Debbie grinding into Annie’s lap while slipping her some tongue. 

It was tame for the courtyard, but Stevie didn’t like it. So he wasn’t fond of the nickname Kissie Face, either. But like I said, that was long before this day.

At the museum we ditched our coats and bags in a locker room. I was slightly hesitant — I had a bottle of gin in my bag — but I did it. Next we found the restroom. Stevie and I went, washed, and then waited outside for Mark until we began to feel antsy. I went back in to see what was up. Trake was still on the can with his pants around his ankles. He said we should start without him.

I’d never been to this art museum. Actually, I’d never been to any museum that I could recall. It was actually pretty cool. Being just as amazed as I was, Bowie made sure to touch everything.

“Stevie,” I said, “you can’t be rubbing up on a Picasso.”

“Why not?” he asked. “Mark’s rubbing one out in the bathroom.”

I didn’t want to consider the likelihood of that, but it was too late now — Stevie had said it and I couldn’t unhear it. “Just stop touching stuff!” I huffed.

“Alright, alright,” he said. As we exited into an open corridor display, Bowie ran his hand softly over a sleek, shiny sculpture. “Oooh…”

“Steven!” I barked, then ditched him as quickly as I could. I found my way into an exhibit of work by Maine artists. I didn’t recognize many, but I don’t know much about art. 

“Sir.” A guard was speaking to me.

“Yes?”

“Your friend from the restroom has left. He said to tell you he’d be outside.” 

“Oh, thank you.” I blushed.

I continued looking at art, as if nothing odd had happened. About 15 minutes later, another guard addressed me. “Sir, your other friend said he would wait outside, as well.” 

“Oh, thank you,” I replied, as if this were an everyday occurrence. 

“We also wanted you to know you’re welcome back anytime,” she added. “​You​’ve behaved wonderfully and we would love to have you. But I wouldn’t recommend bringing your friends.”

•••

Boy, was I feeling like dog shit. Having been banned from Beat 2 — ​which includes the East End and, most damningly, the Old Port — I’d mostly been working Congress Street, as far east as Officer Penis would allow. I could put just enough dollars in my pocket to keep me sick. It was going on dinnertime and I hadn’t made a dollar all day. My bottle ran out that morning and my temperature was rising. I was standing in Monument Square, miserable and suffering, when Jordan greeted me.

“Kenny Wayne,” he said, flashing a bright smile. “You look awful. Is there anything I can do?”

“I need a bottle.” It was not at all like me to say that. It was meant as a sort of unfunny joke. And I wasn’t expecting him to buy me a bottle. He could lose his job driving the drunk van.

“How much is it?”

“Eight fifty-eight out the door.” Was he really going to do this? 

“I’ll be right back,” he said. “What kind?”

“Poland Spring.” 

He tilted his head as if to ask, ​Is that a real thing? 

“It’s a real thing,” I assured him. “Believe it or not.” 

While I was waiting I finally got some people to stop and listen. I made eight dollars. I would only owe him 58 cents. 

“Here you go,” he said, handing me the jug. It was in a paper bag. That’s a nickel. 

“Here ​you​ go,” I said, handing him the eight bucks. “I owe you sixty-three cents.”

•••

Another blessing bestowed upon me while busking was a ticket to see Kris Kristofferson. Handsome Bob had recommended I grab a local rag and look for gigs outside Beat 2 that I could busk at. I found a ​Portland Phoenix​ and saw that Kristofferson was booked to play the State Theatre​. This was definitely it.

When I got to the venue there were people buying tickets at the box office window. In those days I had no case for my guitar. I walked around with it strapped over my shoulder and could quickly draw my axe for battle. So I went right up and just started playing. 

A few people stopped to listen, and upon finishing the piece I boasted that I’d written it myself. A guy gave me five dollars. Then he asked if I’d written anything else. So I played another one of my songs, the best I could. When I finished it a lady said, “I have something for you.” She reached into her purse to retrieve what I thought would be a ten- or twenty-dollar bill. It was a ticket to see the show.

I was nearly dumbfounded. Once I could speak, I told everyone in earshot that I was taking a night off. They probably didn’t realize I never took a night off, because they probably didn’t realize homelessness is a 24-hour-a-day job that you have to do ​every​ day. And they almost certainly weren’t aware that by choosing to go to the show I was choosing to be sick. There would be no more gin until eight in the morning, when the liquor store opened again. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I sat with the lady and her old man, but in my head there was no one in the room besides me and Kris Kristofferson. I was entranced. He was over 80 years old and absolutely amazing. He sounded better that night than on any recording of him I’d ever heard. He told jokes and stories and sang most of the songs of his that I know. I laughed and cried and sang along and thought, remembered.​ It was magical, really. He did on stage what I did on the sidewalk.

A guy in front of me asked if I’d brought my guitar in to get it signed. I laughed. “They’re not gonna let me anywhere near Kris Kristofferson! I brought it in because I’m homeless and had nowhere else to leave it.”

I probably could have just said I was busking and these nice people gave me a ticket, or I hadn’t expected to be at this splendid show. But that’s not what came out. 

I guess it worked out OK, though, because before I left, the guy gave me $27 he and others in our section had somehow pooled without me noticing. It’s a wonderful thing when people are so kind to one another. I wish every day was Kristofferson Day.

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