Chapter Five: Soup at the Store
“All my efforts subside like froth into the one desire to be able just to stay lying there.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
I couldn’t find the art store. It was dark. It was cold. It was raining and windy as hell. Even with my 280 pounds, walking was like pushing against some unseeable barrier, an invisible wall of water reinforced by air. I knew where I was — at least, I knew I was on Congress Street; I wasn’t too drunk to know that. But I was too drunk to find the doorway.
The arts-and-crafts shop’s door is set back under an overhang, effectively forming three walls and a roof. There’s a slope leading up to the entrance, which puts gravity to work for you. Water doesn’t travel uphill. This can help keep you alive.
Head down, shoulders up tight to my neck to guard against the wind, I finally spotted the incline. I recognized its ceramic, checkerboard-patterned, mosaic floor. Once I was somewhat shielded from the elements I dried my hands, got out papers and tobacco, and rolled a smoke. But when I lit the cigarette and looked around I didn’t see any art supplies. I was in the wrong doorway. Oh, well — it would have to do.
I was really wet and the temperature had gotten into the core of me. As I lay there trying to sleep, I shivered. This is not shaking. It’s the body’s way of burning fuel to warm up the house. I didn’t just think I was freezing. My body, at its base level, knew it was freezing, and was working hard to keep its dysfunctional mind alive.
As I lay there trying to sleep, I felt a hand on my shoulder. When I raised my wary head — that’s not a misuse of vocabulary, because while I was weary, I was also wary of the hand — there was a beautiful woman offering me a wad of bills. I quickly and politely thanked her and grabbed the cash. I stuffed it in my pocket even more quickly, but hopefully no less politely. I don’t think there’s etiquette for how you keep your charity, just for the way you accept it.
“You were shaking in your sleep,” she said, “so I laid another blanket on you.”
“Thank you,” I replied. I was sleeping in the doorway of her home.
If I were writing fiction right now, I might be tempted to spin a yarn into a soft, fuzzy sweater. Perhaps she took me up to her warm apartment and fed me soup, along with intellectual yet heartwarming insights on humanity. She shared with me her bed, and her breakfast. She was an artist, and her sense of humor and irony inspired her to paint my portrait: a picture of me slurping warm chowda with a patchwork comforter draped over me like a Northern New England toga. She titled the piece “Soup at the Store,” in reference to my error and the incidental Salvation delivered unto me that night. The encounter grew into a relationship, a romance to be reckoned with at the deepest levels of my being.
But this wasn’t fiction; it was real, and that was our entire interaction, probably forever. She handed me a few bucks, spoke one sentence, and I thanked her. Then she crawled back into her comfortable bed by herself, or with whomever she really shares her soup, and I went back to shivering on her stoop, somewhere between gratitude and Grace.
After awhile — there’s no way to tell how long; time is variable and it was dark and overcast — I felt a far less gentle touch. It was a cop, kicking me to bring me to consciousness. There were only two of them, which surprised me, but they told me I had to go. I needed to find another overhang, three more walls and a roof.
So I went to Blackstones.
People refer to Blackstones as a gay bar, but the distinction seems almost nonsensical in the little city of Portland. While stereotypes exist here, as they do everywhere, for the most part our community is tolerant and accepting of all. I have straight friends as well as friends who are gay, bi, pan, transgender. I also have friends who are black, white, Asian, Indian (or at least Nepalese), African, Canadian, Native American … even Irish.
I was sleeping in the bar’s doorway with my guitar as a pillow, blanket pulled over my head, when I heard a loud, forceful, feminine voice. “Who sleeping in my doorway?” it demanded.
I was not eager to answer that question. I was finally getting some sleep that almost seemed like real slumber. I didn’t want to get up, but if the management says check out, you gotta check out. Otherwise the cops show up and check you into their hotel. I pulled the blanket off my head and saw two people standing there.
“Oh, shit,” said Black Irish. “Leave this one alone. He dangerous.”
Like I said, I have Irish friends, but Black Irish isn’t one of them. I don’t hate him — he’s just too annoying for me to consider him anything more than an acquaintance. We call him Black Irish to distinguish him from White Irish. This is a self-explanatory differentiation obvious to anyone, unless you are Black Irish. He would tell you he’s not black, he’s Irish. I don’t know what he has against being black. That would seem better to me than being Irish, but it’s his hang-up, not mine.
Black Irish was speaking to Crazy Jane. We call her that to distinguish her from White Jane. Crazy Jane is from Sudan and about as black as Black Irish, but her most defining characteristic isn’t that she’s black. She’s crazy.
The first time I met Crazy Jane I was on Commercial Street and it was very late. The bars were all closed and I was looking for a place to crash. She seemed to appear out of nowhere. Here I was: 45 years old, drunker than an Irish Indian, tromping through the Old Port, unfamiliar with the area, nowhere to go, lugging everything I owned and seeking refuge. And there she was: 35 years old, dark and exotic, speaking with a Sudanese accent, a refugee herself, bumping and grinding up on me and telling me she had a place. So we headed towards this place.
She brought me to a doorway. This may have offended someone else, but I was actually pleased. It looked like a good doorway, a place where I could get shelter on my own if I needed it on another night. We got out my blankets, made a little nest and made a little whoopee — until we got caught by a security guard, who made us move on. So much for this being a good doorway.
Then Crazy Jane told me she really had a place: she had her own apartment. It was a bit of a walk, she said, but we could’ve walked pretty far before I would’ve softened, so I was feeling up for the adventure.
It was a long walk from Commercial Street to Libbytown, where we wound up. She brought me to Logan Place, out by where the interstate meets Fore River Parkway. This is a building where Preble Street and Avesta house people who are generally un-house-able. Most residents are middle-aged or beyond, usually alcoholics or addicts on their last leg of the Journey of Life, or crazy people. Logan Place has staff on duty at all times, and you have to check in with an ID and remain with your host at all times. It’s like visiting someone at a minimum-security prison’s pre-release facility, but co-ed.
When we got inside, the worker at the check-in desk said, “Jane, you know you aren’t allowed guests. You have a two-week restriction.” His tone was that of a gentle parent reinforcing a rule that had been repeatedly violated. We’d traveled a great distance for a sleepover, and now Dad was telling us there could be no slumber party.
There was another resident in the lobby and, seeing our plight, he signed me in under his name. I didn’t know it at the time, but Scotty Partridge did this for Jane because he was in love with her. I also didn’t know he’d be dead shortly thereafter, but he was. Crazy Jane was his last crush, his final girl-next-door. But he let us romp on his bed in the tiny living space allotted for Logan Place residents. He was our audience. It was an interactive experience for all three of us, and probably more uncomfortable for him than me, considering he was in love and I was not. I was simply in bed. He was more the gentleman than I. By now I’d realized Jane was probably crazy, but she was also tender in the night. And if I hadn’t known she was nuts by then, I was certain the next morning. I had to search for an hour to find my boots and pants. She had hidden them, like a little girl playing a game with her father.
“Leave me alone,” I said that night at Blackstones, pulling the blanket back over my head. They didn’t. They sat down inside the doorway at my feet and just kept talking. They wouldn’t shut up. I must have told them five times to shut up before I heard another familiar voice. It was Bobby Chops.
“Bobby,” I said from beneath the blanket, “tell me you have food.”
He did. He always had a stash in his bag. We all had breakfast together, on Bob. He had a bottle of vodka, too. That was good because I didn’t want to pull out my gin in a crowd without having back up, and I needed a drink.
“How about some ‘Folsom Prison Blues?’” Chops requested. How could I say no? I played and Bobby Chops sang Johnny Cash. Then I put the guitar away. It was still too early for me to really get into jamming — I’d need a few more shots.
After awhile, the cops showed up. One of the officers was Tex. He told us we had to move on because we were being too loud. I tried to reason with him: “Why don’t you just tell the crazy African to leave? She’s the one being loud.”
“There’s no need to be racist,” Tex said.
“How is that racist?” I asked. “She’s African, she’s crazy, and she’s being loud!”
Despite my bitter righteousness, we were all moving on, because we were all the same as far as the cops were concerned. Chicago was right about that: we were all niggers to them. We gathered our gear and the four of us headed off to find another place to drink together. I bid farewell to Portland’s Finest with a promise to remain in touch: “See ya at the next spot,” I said.