News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience: Book II

by | Sep 14, 2020

The author (left) with “Handsome” Bob Bergeron, summer 2020. photo/John Duncan

 

 Chapter 7: The Portland Police Fund 

“‘State, State’ — Tjaden snaps his fingers contemptuously — ‘Gendarmes, police, taxes, that’s your State; if that’s what you are talking about, no, thank you.'”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

Handsome Bob, the Griz and I headed for Fore Street. We’d tried flying a sign earlier, before the ordinance officer showed up at the ferry terminal. Bob had made it. He drew caricatures of the three of us and added a caption: ​“Too Ugly to Prostitute.”​ Then he drew a word balloon over my head: “But Kenny Wayne will take one for the team.”​

We’d gotten our first hit at the Resource Center, from Jackie. She thought this sign was a winner. I was a good man, she said, adding, ​“I just took one for the team last night.”​ That hadn’t been the only dollar we’d made with the cartoon sign, but close to it.

So we decided to try out the hat idea. ​We​ had hats. Griz even had a ballcap that sat on the sidewalk in such a way that it could act as a bowl or dish to catch money in. (Our friendly neighborhood ordinance officer might have said it sat like a pan.) We felt a sense of positivity and gained a sense of confidence. This could work.

We sat down and spun a beer. Nobody dropped anything. We popped the clutch on another high grav. As we were spinning that one, a couple people dropped some change. Then someone put two dollars in the hat. As we spun another beer, a couple more people dropped very small amounts of change.

Then someone kicked the hat over. Coins rolled all across the sidewalk. The passerby was very polite and apologetic: “I hadn’t even seen the hat.”

We had a pretty good buzz, but we were drinking money faster than we were making it. And it was true: people weren’t seeing the hat. I considered getting up and trying it my way. If we didn’t squeak more noticeably, we couldn’t stay greased.

The Griz must have been thinking the same thing, but he must’ve been a little more than buzzed. He stood up and began pointing at the ballcap as people passed. “​Hat​!” he said loudly. “We have a ​hat​!” He was saying other things, too, indecipherable words more aptly described as ​grunts.​ He’d fallen into what Bobby called ​Griz Mode​. Some English-speakers can also converse in ​French​ or ​Spanish. Bob and I speak ​Drunk​ as our second language. The Griz spoke ​Griz, a tongue only he fully understood.

Handsome Bob and I could comprehend a few other Griz phrases, but after awhile even we could only make out that one noun; the Griz just kept pointing and growling, “​Hat​!” Now, ​this​ was ​definitely​ “aggressive panhandling,” even by my standards, and I was pretty forward when I got going on the jokes and riddles and such. Plus, Griz is a big, scary-looking dude, like a ​Hell’s Angels​ version of Grizzly Adams.

As entertaining as this was to watch, I needed to do something else. So I walked farther up Fore Street and started my own ​aggressive panhandling campaign using my improv stand-up routine. When I rolled back to the stoop, Handsome Bob was there but Griz had disappeared, probably having retired to Milestone for the night. Bob and I were pretty drunk, but I’d hit upon a good gimmick.

The block of Fore Street where the rowdiest bars are, between Exchange and Union, had just been closed to vehicular traffic — ​as was done at the end of every Friday and Saturday summer night — and the place was wall-to-wall cops. I started in with a bit that went something like this: “Excuse me, but we’re trying to raise money to get the Portland Police off the streets and safely housed. They’re really bringing the property value down and I don’t wanna have to sleep across the street from them.”

I rambled on like that while people kept laughing and handing me money. As it got closer to last call, Bob and I knew one of us had to run to Circle K for more booze, so he headed off on that mission while I kept my act going. Then a cop overheard me, and wasn’t at all amused. He gave me the line: “Thirty seconds to vacate or you will be arrested.” I took him far more seriously than I’d wanted to be perceived myself, and went off to find Bob.

I walked to Circle K and back, but found Ryan and Kristen instead. Right in front of their stoop, I told someone a joke and he handed me a ten dollar bill. I stuck it in their can.

“That’s why I like you,” Ryan said. “You have real respect. You want five back?” That’s the street etiquette, to split it.

“No,” I said. “This is your spot. And there’s two of you.”

I’d become pretty good friends with Ryan and Kristen. He had a coarse personality, but he was existing in a harsh reality, trying to protect a flower in a concrete jungle. While we were spinning a beer, Mark rolled up and he and I worked the sidewalk until the bars were all closed.

With still no sign of Bob, Mark and I went to sleep in a basement we called The Dungeon, ​a spot Ryan and Kristen had first shown me. Trake and I pulled out our night’s wages, all the wrinkled bills we’d quickly stuffed into our grimy pants pockets while spanging. When Mark saw my pile, his mouth dropped open so wide I thought he might suck his chin into the tracheotomy hole. I’d made almost three hundred dollars with that ​Portland Police Fund​ bit. I guess a lot of people wanted to get the police off the streets.

I came across Handsome Bob first thing the next morning. He was brained and bruised and scraped up pretty good, all covered in dust and straw from sleeping under his bush. He looked like hell, but he still had the store run in his hands, with only one beer and a couple smokes gone. Maybe he is a pirate, but he’s a good one.

 

Chapter 8: Three in the Bush 

“We know only in some strange and melancholy way we have become a wasteland. All the same, we are not often sad.”
— Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

It was nearly full dark when Mark had his first crazy idea to make money. To this day, Handsome Bob and I still aren’t sure what Trake’s actual intent was, and the Griz never said much anyway, so I don’t know if he knew, either. The four of us were at The Point. Bobby and Griz were sitting on the bench while I stood behind it and Mark paced back and forth in front, trying to work something out in his head.

Then Mark stopped dead in his tracks, covered the hole in his throat and shouted at Bobby — “Here, take this! Take this!” — while shoving his beer in Bob’s direction. Bob didn’t just grab it. He didn’t trust Mark. He quickly did a Five-O scan to make sure it wasn’t a trap.

“Take this! Take this!” Trake kept shouting, now more aggressively, stomping his foot. I looked around for cops, too. There weren’t any — just two couples on a double date, walking quickly. So Handsome Bob grabbed the beer.

“Throw it at me!” Trake shouted, now flailing his arms. “Throw it at me!”

It was half a beer. For Bob, that’s the proverbial optimism of the half-full glass, and he wasn’t gonna throw away good fortune. He quickly drained the can while Mark kept yelling at him, “Throw it at me! Throw it at me!”

So Bobby pitched him a strike. It hit him right over the eye. Mark slapped one hand over his face, hunched over, blood trickling between his fingers, and with his other hand he covered his trake to scream at Bob some more. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he raved in raspy fury.

“What?” Bob asked. He’d acted exactly as commanded — except for drinking the beer, but that had to be expected.

“You were supposed to throw it while those people were walking by!”

“Why?” Bob asked, dumbfounded.

“So they’d give us money!” Mark roared.

The next crazy plan popped into Mark’s head while we were crossing the cobblestones to get to the other side. I had to be stupider than a chicken to still be following Mark, because that last idea made no sense at all. This one actually had a sort of wit to it. It absolutely wasn’t going to work, but even I wasn’t sure of that then. It was a really ghoulish scheme, so I figured it might depend on the personality of the passerby. Some people pay for some pretty sick entertainment.

“This is what I’m gonna do,” Mark said. “You’re gonna take this plastic shopping bag and blow it up with air.” He showed me that he had a shopping bag. “Then you’re gonna show it to the people, like I’m showing it to you now.” He waved the bag in front of my face. “Then you’re gonna bet them five dollars I can keep this bag over my head for two minutes.”

Of course, Mark could keep the bag over his head for two months — he’d starve to death before he suffocated. “But anyone can see you have a tracheotomy,” I reasoned.

“Not if I cover it with the knot in the bag.”

“How am I going to wave the bag in their faces if it’s already tied around your neck?” I could see he hadn’t thought of that, and this was not a comfort to me.

“I got it,” he announced. “Here’s what we do. I’ll tie the bag over my head, covering my trake. Whenever you make eye contact with someone, just challenge him.”

So there he was, in the middle of the Old Port, wearing worn-out boots, grimy jeans and an old Army coat, a plastic shopping bag tied tight against its shoulders. He looked like a homeless version of the Elephant Man. But I stuck to the plan.

A group of people approached. “I’ll bet you five dollars he can…” They scurried off before I could finish the pitch.

Another group walked by. “Five dollars says he can…” These people scampered away. I could see their reaction was more than just an aversion to panhandling.

A third group approached. “Five dollars says…!” I blurted out, practically shouting, but only because I was trying to speak so quickly. Those folks practically ran away, glancing back with fear in their eyes.

A guy walking alone slowed down. I thought we’d finally hooked one, so I challenged him. “I’ll bet you five dollars this man can keep this bag on his head for two minutes.”

He stopped in front of us, then reached out and furiously ripped a hole in the side of the bag. “What the hell is wrong with you guys?” he screamed as he stormed off.

“Hey, that’s my only bag!” Mark screamed back.

“Now what?” I asked.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Mark snarled, fighting with the knot around his neck. “That son-of-a-bitch!” He tore the bag off, stormed up Fore Street towards Five Guys, and collapsed in front of a crowd of people on the sidewalk outside the burger joint. They immediately surrounded him.

I hurried over to make sure he was alright. I couldn’t see Mark through all the people gathered around. By the time I reached him, he was already being helped up by a couple of dudes, each of whom proceeded to hand him five dollars. He covered his trake to say “thank you,” and before he could turn to walk away, two ladies handed him ten dollars each. As he crossed Fore Street — ​presumably headed for Circle K —​ a few more people handed him money. He made over fifty bucks falling down.

I figured Trake would be right back, so I just kept spanging, but by the time the bars were about to close he still hadn’t returned. It was just Bobby and me. We were pretty smashed and down to the last beer.

Simon Kong walked up and shook Handsome Bob’s hand. When he reached for my hand to shake it, I popped him in the eye. He went over backwards into the street. I jumped up and punched him in the eye a couple more times. I hadn’t forgotten or forgiven him for stealing my phone at the overflow shelter. He got up and ran off. I got out of there. Everyone outside the Slice Bar witnessed it. The guy tried to shake my hand and I knocked him on his ass, and then some. That’s jail time for sure.

I had also breached homeless etiquette. On the street you have the green light to go at someone if he steals from you, but it’s not like diplomatic immunity, and there’s a time limit. You have the right to get your property back, but if you can’t, then it was “stolen fair and square.” You get a couple days, maybe a week, but then you gotta let it go. Only rape allows an unlimited window for vengeance.

I could handle the repercussions of my actions with the Crew later. Avoiding the law of normal people took priority at that moment​.

Bob hurried along the sidewalk with me, but he was pissed off about something and he started taking it out on me. “Go ahead, Kenny Wayne,” he taunted. “Just punch me in the head! Do it! Just punch me in the head!”

“I don’t wanna punch you in the head.”

He shoved me towards the street and the last Daddy crashed to the sidewalk, piercing the side of the can. It spun like a top, spraying the last of the beer all over the two of us.

I didn’t say a word. I just swung. Bob ducked the punch — fittingly, it was a pretty handsome bob that saved his face — but I broke my finger on his thick French-Canadian skull. My pinky knuckle was still behind the knuckle of my middle finger in the morning. In hindsight, this whole night makes no sense. Aside from a 25 oz. can of carbonated, eight-percent sewer water, I had no reason to punch my best friend.

Bob left me, presumably for his bush on the Block. “Shittiest Buddhist ​ever​!” he shouted as he walked up Exchange Street.

“Worst Christian ever!” I yelled in response.

That’s when Hippie Andrew happened along. He was a weird sort of twenty-something wanderer who didn’t seem much like a hippie to me.

“Got any pot?” I asked Hippie Andrew. I needed to calm down. The kid wasn’t a hippie, but he usually did have herb.

“Certainly,” he confirmed. “Got a place to crash?”

“It’s not a house,” I admitted, “but yeah, I got a spot.”

We headed for Freak Street, the informal address of The Dungeon. When we got down to the basement I learned he also had a few fruities. This was unusual. Hippie Andrew never had booze. He’d be more likely to hand me a dollar than a drink. Fruities are a bit sweet for my taste, but they’re eight percent. By five o’clock, when the beer store opened, I would have been sick without booze. That’s really why I’d punched Bob when the can punctured.

We spun a beer and a bowl and were smoking an after-smoke cigarette when Trake rolled down the stairs with Quincy. She was a big-busted biker chick with pretty green eyes and a Quincy-Boston accent, and she smelled so clean and fresh down there in that dirty basement. I don’t know what came over me, but I know what came over her, which was all three of us.

None of us spoke about it when we woke up — or ever again — though I still see Quincy and Andrew around town occasionally. And, of course, Trake.

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