News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience: Book II

Chapters from an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

by | Oct 20, 2020

The author in downtown Portland, summer 2020. photo/John Duncan

Author’s Note: These chapters introduce two characters, Ronnie Williams and Ronnie “Wheels” Baker, two men who became like brothers to me. Both of them would ask me to read these stories to them, and would listen for hours, back when nobody else was even aware I was writing. And so they weren’t merely characters in the stories, they were sounding boards. Ronnie Williams passed away in July of this year, and Ronnie Baker passed just before Thanksgiving of 2019. RIP, my good friends. You are dearly missed.

 

Chapter 9: The Winner

“But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here anymore.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

The sky was blue as newborn eyes. A mild breeze balanced out the blazing afternoon star. It was the sort of day that makes autumn in New England so beautiful.

Day-shift hours had been reduced. Certain leaves were pale yellow with the shock of impending unemployment, others red-faced with embarrassment. They would soon receive their seasonal pink slips and begin blowing about the streets with the rest of the layoffs on the Block.

Whispering rumors in the warm wind, they clung to their branches, still contributing energy to the plant, like dedicated factory workers fighting to stay on through the winter or angling to be recalled after the fall. But they were all going to be replaced by a new, budding workforce capable of growing with the company. It’s the same year after year. What a bunch of suckers.

It was the first time I’d been to Preble Street in weeks. I was sitting with James, Handsome Bob and the Griz when Ronnie Williams eased a knapsack off his burly shoulder and placed it on the bench next to me.

“Kenny, hey,” Ronnie said, “I know you don’t have a hat.” He pulled a heavy-knit winter hat out of his pack. An attractive deep blue, it looked practically new. Too warm for the afternoon we were having, it would be a treasure come nightfall, priceless in a few weeks. I’m not as naïve as the leaves. I knew what was in store for me.

“Ronnie,” I said, “​you​ are awesome. Seriously, man, thank you.”

Foxy came moseying across Preble Street, from the health center, and sat down on the other side of Ronnie’s bag. He was aglow, radiant, a blush of autumnal color to his complexion. ​Something​ had heightened his spirits.

“What’s got you so jolly?” I asked. “You look like St. Nick the day after Christmas.”

“Oh, I just came back from a foot soak and a pedicure,” Foxy announced, affecting a lisp intended to sound effeminate. “You should really try it out. It’s ​marvelous​.”

“The last thing I want right now is to expose any part of myself to some pretty twenty-something-year-old university student,” I replied, “​especially​ my feet.”

“No one else will be walking out of the health center looking healthy any time soon,” Handsome Bob joked. “Foxy had his shoes off.”

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Foxy and Handsome Bob were like a homeless version of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. They’ll despise each other till they’re even grumpier old men and still be sitting on a bench spinning beers.

“For your information, Doctor Bob,” Foxy boastfully began, “I just gave an interview with the newspaper, the Portland Press Herald​.”

“Oh, snap!” James chimed in. “I guess he told you, Bobby.”

“I told them all about my music, and my songwriting, and my hopes and dreams and plans,” Fox continued. “This could be a ​big thing for me. It may be the break I’m waiting for. Get me off this bench.”

Foxy really was hopeful, and proud. He imagined a ​​record producer was going to read about him, lost in the Little City, unable to take care of his homeless self, lounging on the Resource Center bench, and think, ​This is exactly what the world has been waiting for! I can sell this.

“It’s the Portland paper, Foxy,” I said. “No one reads the newspaper anymore, unless they’re in jail or online. Who has time?”

“Yeah,” Bob added, “news travels at the speed of light and never even stirs the dust down here on the Block.”

Handsome Bob was right. Reporters write stories about the Block all the time and nothing ever comes of it. If the homeless all got housed, there goes one of the biggest incentives to get a job. We’d have to reinstate slavery to fill all the minimum-wage positions abandoned by hopelessness. Without photos of us, what would they have to frighten the middle class into reporting for duty every morning?

When the ​Herald​ came out the next day, Foxy anxiously scanned the pages. His picture was there, alright. He was smiling at the photographer. With his pant legs rolled up, soaking his feet, he looked like a hobo at Club Med.

Foxy’s eyes darted to find his name in print, and that was there, too, but it wasn’t what he’d been expecting. It was in the caption under the photo, where he was described as “lumbering around the health center, rambling and disjointed.” Probably not enough press to seal a record deal.

Boy, did Bob have a field day with that one! Walter Matthau wins again.

•••

Someone had given Joe Blaze a phone. The battery was dead, and he wasn’t even sure it worked, but it was a smart phone, a government-issued phone, an Obama phone.​ We were on the benches in front of the ferry terminal. “You know, Joe,” I said, “there’s free Wi-Fi all through here.”

Seeing that Blaze hadn’t quite grasped the significance of my point, I added, “We could get YouTube here if that phone works.”

He looked at me blankly, still trying to connect the dots. “We could listen to music,” I said. “Our​ kinda music: Waylon and Willie, Merle Haggard, ​Bobby B​are.”

I emphasized that last singer because of a particular song Joe made me play whenever we came across a guitar: “​The Winner.”​ Joe requested it so often that people got to thinking I’d written it myself. I usually play my own songs, I’m a brawler by default, and the tale of that tune sounds like my history, so I understood the misconception. The rumor spread, and while busking, random people would approach me and say, “Hey, are you that guy who wrote ‘​The Winner​?’” Unfortunately, not a single one of them was a ​big-time ​record producer thinking, ​This is exactly what the world has been waiting for! I can sell this ‘Winner.’

I always explained that “The Winner” was actually written by Shel Silverstein and recorded by Bobby Bare; then I’d play their long song about how there really is no winner of a fight. The winner is the one who walks away without ever ​having​ fought. Jesus called it turning the other cheek.

Joe had finally gotten my point. “Todd’s inside trying to get warm,” he informed me. “Why don’t you go see if you can borrow his charger?” I didn’t even hesitate.

Todd was slumped on one of the benches in the lobby. He was pretty drunk and just ​out, asleep. I tried to wake him, ​to no avail, and considered digging his pockets to find the charger. I really wanted music. But there were ​normal people​ in the lobby waiting for ferries, and clerks selling tickets. I didn’t want it to look like I was robbing him.

“Kenneth, Kenneth, Kenneth.”

I heard an ominously familiar voice behind me and knew exactly which tall, dark and mean man it belonged to: Officer Penis. “You were already asked to leave,” he said.

“No I wasn’t,” I replied. “I wouldn’t be here if I had.”

“I’m going to have to write you a ​Criminal Trespass Order.” Officer Penis began filling out his white paper — ​my​ ​White Paper. This was heavy. This was a dire development. I suddenly realized I wouldn’t be allowed to use the terminal’s public bathroom for a year. There was no stopping that now, but where else would I be banned?

“Officer Penis,” I said, very respectfully, “where else does the paper restrict me from?”

He continued writing in silence.

“I mean, does this pertain to the benches in front of the terminal? Does it include the pier, or the…” I was going to ask about Ocean Gateway, the cruise-ship terminal next to Casco Bay Lines, which also has a public toilet, but I never got the chance. Officer Penis and his partner grabbed me, one on each side, their arms hooked under my armpits, and took me face-down to the lobby floor. Then they handcuffed me behind my back, hoisted me by my elbows and dragged me out of the building.

Standing in front of Ocean Gateway — from which I still didn’t know if I’d been restricted — they emptied my pockets, leaving most of my property on the sidewalk (luckily, my bag was still with Blaze at the benches). Then they loaded me into an SUV and transported me to the Cumberland County Jail.

I wouldn’t be hearing any music for at least a few days.

Chapter 10: Six-Letter Words

People in need of social services rarely get to learn any details about the people who help them. There are sensible reasons for this — some about safety, some personal. But what you know about the preacher who helps you is that this person is working in the name of some god, or at least that person’s perception of a god.

That’s not a short-order cook’s bill. A short-order cook’s job is pretty darn tough, but you get in, get ’er done, and get out. The holy man can’t get out. He’s in it for the long haul. And he doesn’t take his job home with him, because it’s already there, and everywhere else he goes.

I don’t know much about Pastor Jeff, but I know he’s a man of deep faith and dedication. I know he goes to the lowest of the low and lifts them up. I know he hands out socks and Dunkin’ cards to people who sleep outside in the wintertime. I know he visits the sick, and that if I sent for him from prison, he would come. I know he’ll drive a person to an appointment or home with groceries if he’s able. I know he comforts those who feel like they’re beyond comfort, people who’ve done things that were harmful, or dangerous, or humiliating, in the interest of self-preservation. I know he helps people without judgment or prejudice or preaching. But I know he’s a preacher. And I’m aware that he’s a Christian, because it shows.

I’m not a Christian, but I ​am​ a man of faith. I believe Pastor Jeff and I have faith in the same God, we just use different words to name that Entity. His label is ​“the Christ.” Mine is ​“the Cosmos.”​ We don’t get distracted by semantics. It wouldn’t bother me if Pastor Jeff believed there were a billion gods. A billion gods don’t scare me — my God would simply be the collective of them all. If people throughout history shared our tolerance, there would’ve been a lot less bloodshed. Imagine.

Joe Blaze and I were sitting on the sidewalk across the street from the soup kitchen, in what ​had been​ called ​Benny’s House​ before he got an actual apartment. Joe had just explained to a security guard, in a very convincing manner, that he and I weren’t leaving.

We’d been forced to take refuge in neutral territories, and those spots were becoming more difficult to find by the day. Joe wasn’t allowed on Preble Street property — ​or most other places —​ and I was no longer allowed in the Old Port. Officer Penis had made up that illegal rule himself. Technically, I wasn’t allowed in Beat 2​, the patrol area that covered pretty much everywhere I could’ve made money. Now I only went to the Old Port late at night, after Officer Penis’ shift ended, and headed to Preble Street each day around lunchtime.

Pastor Jeff greeted us as he approached, and Joe launched into a rant. He went on and on about the ​City​, and ​Preble Street​, and ​Oxford Street,​ and the neighborhood security guards​, and the ​cops​, and the ​“niggers”​ who were “sucking up all ​our resources.”

Chicago — ​the blackest man you ever could meet, and a fairly good friend of Joe’s — had always reminded us over the years: We were niggers, too. “I’m a nigger. You a nigger. He a nigger. We all niggers out here,” Chicago would say. And he was right.

Racism, like religion, is a useful tool for the rich, who want to divide us. They’re the slave brokers of the masses, of billions of people. There’s strength in numbers, and that’s a big number. I wouldn’t fear a billion gods, because I’d still perceive them as one, but these slave masters fear a billion people acting as one.

I never passed a grade after 7th — ​and I failed math that year —​ but I understand division. It’s a process that makes things smaller. The more you divide something, the less there is of it. The more you divide humanity, the less human we become.

Joe Blaze was embarrassing me in front of Pastor Jeff. While I knew the preacher knew Joe didn’t mean a damn thing he was saying, I had to do something to change the subject — and do so in a way that wouldn’t make it seem like I was interrupting Joe, which could be detrimental to my own well-being.

“I got CTO’d from ​Life is Good​,” I offered.

“​What?​” Pastor Jeff asked, with a soft chuckle.

I handed him the ​White Paper​ and he read it with incredulous curiosity. I’d been sleeping there because I thought it was funny: this big ol’ beast of man, a flower in the lapel of his pirate coat, reading himself to sleep across the street from an upscale hotel, on the steps of a shop that sells smiley-face merchandise of no practical use for anything, beneath a sign that says, “Life is Good.” Absurdity at its finest.

“Yeah,” I said. “Now life will never be good. At least, not for a year.” I laughed.

“Do you mind if I take a picture of this?” Pastor Jeff asked.

“Go ahead,” I said. I don’t know what he intended to do with a picture of the CTO, but it was ​definitely​ worthy of a photograph: comedy, tragedy and irony combined in a single image.

“Unbelievable,” said Pastor Jeff. He put his cell phone away and handed back the piece of paper.

“I wrote a new song,” I told him, still trying to steer the conversation.

“Yeah,” Joe chimed in. “Play it for him, Kenny.”

I played Pastor Jeff my ​“Cobblestones”​ tune. He asked if I’d written anything else. I hadn’t realized that I’d never played for him before. He stuck around long enough to hear half a dozen songs. I was happy he enjoyed my little open-air concert, and felt redeemed after the ranting he’d had to endure from Joe.

This was also the day we met Ronnie Wheels. After the pastor left, Joe started talking about how he needed money for his prescription. Ronnie walked by us — ​so briskly that I hadn’t even noticed his prosthetic legs — just in time to overhear Joe’s dilemma.

Ronnie had never seen us before, yet somehow he sympathized with Joe’s situation. He broke out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to him. Maybe Ronnie had heard about Joe’s “Be Nice Pills,”​ or maybe he was just nice himself. In any case, I was glad Blaze would get his meds. He already hadn’t been acting very nice, and that always made me a little edgy.

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