News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience: Book II

Chapters from an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

by | Nov 14, 2020

The author in Portland, summer 2020. photo/Joanne Arnold

Chapter 11: Dirty Laundry

It was Sunday. I needed to shower and get my laundry done. Sunday was my day for that sort of thing. If I hadn’t made enough money to medicate myself by Sunday, I’d put those tasks off until Monday. And if Monday didn’t go well, I might wait till the next Sunday, or the next Monday, but it had to happen eventually, and I usually made enough money on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to get through most of the week.

The Griz and I were headed to Milestone. Griz slept there every night. He was a real Milestone Cowboy. I wouldn’t even sleep there on Sunday, but I’d stay long enough to get the laundry done and shower while it washed.

Unless it’s summertime, you have to check in by dinner to get a mat at Milestone, which is roughly five o’clock. Being mostly manic, I can’t sleep more than four hours on a good night. So by ten or twelve o’clock, I can’t sleep at all. And I can’t breathe in there. My breathing had become dreadfully difficult. At times I became seriously concerned. I felt like I might suffocate in my sleep, like I might ​wake up dead​.

We got to India Street and decided to kill the last Daddy before we went inside the facility. We sat across the street on some steps leading into an apartment building. It wasn’t directly across from the shelter, because we knew if they saw us drinking in the neighborhood they wouldn’t let us in, even though it’s a “wet” shelter. They were trying to clean up the image of the place or something.

And I’d heard stories from other Milestone Cowboys who said booze had been taken from backpacks and bags stored in the property shed behind the building. The thief would have had to have been an employee. I’d heard too many such tales by too many people for it to be entirely bullshit. Besides, the staff was mostly, if not entirely, alcoholics. An alcoholic is always just a drink away from being a drunk. I didn’t want ​that​ drunk’s drink to be ​my​ last beer, so I was going to drink it myself, on the steps.

“When my son was really young, he went through a cussing stage,” I said to Griz. “I heard him swearing like a little sailor one day, and I said, ‘Bowman, why are you saying such bad words?’ and he said, ‘Dad, it’s my thing.’”

That got a chuckle out of the Griz. I took a swig, passed him the can and continued. “So I said, ‘Well, ​now​ your thing is in your room. Go there, and don’t come down till I tell you!’”

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Another chuckle from the Griz. He handed me the Daddy and I took a good haul, then handed it back. “Then his mother asked me to get some things at the market. So I headed out. Just as I was getting to the store I heard this guy hollering, ‘Damn fish! Anybody wanna buy any damn fish?’ So I said to him, ‘Mister, I don’t appreciate that language. I just sent my son to his room for cussing and here you are, carrying on like that in public.’”

By now Griz was getting suspicious of the story. This didn’t sound like me. But he passed me the beer again, listening intently. I hit it and went on, putting the can in my coat. “The guy says to me, ‘No, you got it all wrong. These are dam fish. I caught these fish at the dam.’”

By now Griz knew I was telling a joke. He’d already turned red, getting ready to laugh. “I apologized and figured I ought to buy a couple fish. So I got the fish and brought ’em home to the missus to fix for dinner.”

A car pulled up in front of us.

“She said, ‘OK, I’ll cook the fish. You go fetch Bo for dinner.’”

It was a damn cop. Well, not a real cop. It was that same ordinance officer who told us we couldn’t be asking for money outside the ferry terminal. He must not like my jokes.

“Take the beer out and set it on the steps,” he said.

“Oh, man,” I replied. “Are you serious? We’re two minutes from going into the wet shelter and just killing the last can.”

He asked us our names and began running them. That was ​his​ thing: running names.

“Am I being arrested?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s up to Officer Kiddy. Are you familiar with Officer Kiddy?”

I wasn’t, but I didn’t like the sound of young Waldo — the worshipful way he spoke of this cop. I began handing off to Griz all the things the jail would throw away: ​lighters, cigarettes, rolling papers, bowl, pot. None of that stuff is illegal, but you don’t get it back.

I picked my hat up from the stoop, the heavy-knit blue one Ronnie Williams had given me on the bench at Preble Street, but hesitated before placing it back on my head because my scalp had been itching pretty aggressively. Looking inside I saw several little creatures rush for cover from the afternoon sun. It was infested with lice. I guess I can be as naïve as a leaf. Thanks, Ronnie. ​You​ are awesome.

The real cop showed up, a strictly by-the-book Irishman, probably one of a long line of Irish policemen. The wannabe cop told Kiddy he’d seen us with a beer when he came out of the coffee shop. That’s some pretty good detective work. He uncovered a great mystery. Not many cops know to patrol near coffee shops.

While the Irish cop waited for the paddy wagon to bring me to jail, he gave us a lecture about drinking on India Street. The neighborhood didn’t appreciate it, especially on their front steps. Numerous people had walked by the Griz and me, several going into or out of the very building where we were sitting. Nobody had said or done anything other than greet us cordially, maybe mention the weather.

Milestone has been on India Street for years, decades. It was named the Arnie Hansen Center prior to Milestone. It was established for drunks and has always been Drunk Central — a detox and a wet shelter. They used to give you a bag of tobacco and a stack of rolling papers every morning to get you through the program. There’s no smoking allowed there these days. Most drunks last a couple or few days without cigarettes. Nowadays it’s a spin dry and a Suboxone provider. Just like most places in the treatment industry, the heroin epidemic has taken it over.

 

Chapter Twelve: Save the Seagulls

“They are quiet in this way, because quietness is so unobtainable for us now.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

The Cut is a working wharf, part of what some locals call “the working waterfront.” It was from here that the mysterious crate carrying the vampire in ​Salem’s Lot​ was retrieved. It was also my living room for a period of time.

One of the nice things about the Cut is that it cuts out the wind considerably. I would go there in the early morning hours, sometimes as early as four o’clock, and watch the sun rise, just sitting there, absorbing the surroundings and the morning as it unfolded.

In the wintertime I knew the temperature by the behavior of the gulls. I judged time by the heavenly bodies. If it was cloudy before dawn and someone told me the time, I could tell them where the planets and constellations were behind the clouds. A wharf cat scurried through every day and I could predict within five or ten minutes when that cat would come prowling along. To me, this cat represented the same thing Trake did: survival. Both gave me a sense of confidence in my own ability to endure.

I was there when the lobstermen loaded their traps and knew them all — if not by name, by boat. There were also painters, photographers, poets and stoners who came to take with them some of the beauty of this place and share it with the world.

Some people may not have recognized the beauty of the place. The boats are all commercial fishing vessels and the buildings along the docks are dilapidated, the paint weathered from high winds and salt of the sea. The flora is algae that forms an epidermis of scum over the inlet. The fauna consist of seagulls and pirates, the most base and primal of all the beasts of the city. When fishermen or workers at the fish market dumped vats of chum into the harbor, hundreds of gulls would swoop in battle, combining aerial maneuvers and nautical tactics. It was chaotic, brutal and self-serving, a scene as ugly as it was beautiful.

I knew the schedules of the workers at the fish market, the Italian restaurant, and even the law offices nearby, and they all knew me. My schedule was obvious. I sat there and nursed my gin and read books. I ate and entertained the occasional guest, especially if there was a guitar. If the Crew wanted to find me, this is where they went. I kept the Cut clean and kept order there. When things got out of hand, as they occasionally did, I quickly brought a solution. But eventually the cops would run me out of there, too.

One day, a guy all dressed up in a suit, obviously on a smoke break,​ addressed me. “You really like this place, huh?”

“It’s one of my favorite places,” I answered.

“I can tell,” he said. “Mind if I ask you a question?”

“I haven’t minded so far. Try me.”

“I see you out here every day, and you seem to be very intelligent, very articulate. You don’t seem to be crazy. You just seem like a regular Joe.” He was really laying a foundation. “How did this happen to you?” he finally asked.

I cocked my head slightly, squinted my eyes to express perplexity, and asked him a question in return. “Are you on a smoke break right now?”

“Yeah,” he said, raising his cigarette in affirmation.

“Then we don’t have time for this conversation.”

•••

I never knew her name, only that she worked at the fish market near the Cut. She used to pass me almost every day on her way to and from work and on her breaks. She was a very kind person, a type usually not too difficult to spot. Sometimes she would bring the withering organic waste from her fridge at home to feed the gulls. Once, while feeding them some questionable meat, she remarked to me, “You can’t give things like that to a dog, but the gulls have a constitution that allows them to eat almost anything.”

Another time I witnessed her giving warm clothes and warm food to Louis, a young mentally ill homeless man who wandered around in his own world — that is to say, his own mind —​and never appeared to be dressed warmly enough. The plight of people like Louis makes me doubt our societies are actually social at all. But people like the lady feeding him and the gulls give me encouragement. Maybe it could happen some day.

One day, she gave me a few dollars. “The reason for me giving you that — and, ​please​, don’t tell anyone — is that you don’t drink.”

I told her I did drink. It would have seemed shameful if I hadn’t told her, dishonest.

“Well, you’re not like those others. They’re so loud and obnoxious. Why, just the other day one of them ​fell​ in the bay!”

I was there when that incident occurred, and the drunk hadn’t fallen in the ocean — he jumped. It was Benny. Sometimes he just did that. I’ve seen him jump in ​the drink​ in the dead of winter more times than I can count. The day she was referring to, the cops showed up. Ben told them he jumped in to save a seagull. What a nut! But the cops are familiar with his shenanigans and take him with a grain of salt.

Benny is practically indestructible — to that, I will concede. And he doesn’t take ​anything​ with a grain of salt. He swallows the whole damn sea full of it. He really has tried to save a seagull before, too. It bit him on the nose! That’s just one more scar for Benny. He’s scarred for life from head to toe: burns, bullet holes, cuts, you name it. He’s got a more rugged constitution than the gulls. But the seagulls are more rational and may be smarter than Benny now that he’s destroyed so many brain cells.

•••

Ben had invited Mark and me to his place earlier that day. I didn’t want to go, but Trake has a way of persuading me that I really can’t explain. I think mostly I just enjoy his company. He’s a good man and a great friend.

There was almost two feet of snow on the ground and it was pretty dead in the Old Port. We had enough for beer in the morning and bus fare there and back. As Trake was making his case, the last bus of the night was rolling down the street toward us. It was now or never, and I had to decide quickly. We boarded the bus.

The two of us both had horror stories of previous visits to Benny’s place, trips made together and independently. As the bus rolled along, I recalled the last time I’d gone to his apartment. Quincy had been there. She’d been acting normal, which was unusual. She was commonly referred to as Crazy Quincy for good reason. She earned the title.

I’d been in rough shape, dirty in every sense. My main reason for accepting the invitation had been to clean up. I decided I wanted to take a bath.

While reclined in the tub, as submersed as my enormous 280-pound whale of a frame could be, I realized I’d forgotten to ask for a towel and washcloth. I called out to Benny and he sent Quincy in to bring me what I’d need.

While she was in the bathroom, she asked me to give her a peek. So I showed myself to her. She must’ve gone back and told Benny she liked what she’d seen, because he started hollering in to me that Quincy wanted to double date, so to speak. After I felt like I’d polished off my property enough to share, I wrapped a towel around my waist and walked out of the bathroom.

While this was pleasing to Quincy in practice, it was only appealing to Ben in theory. After she’d taken her top off, exposing her buxom bosom, he became abrasive and started calling her names. Then he bit her on the nipple, in a way that was not at all playful. She screamed.

“Get the fuck out!” Ben screamed back at her. “Go, or I’ll call the cops!’ Things began getting smashed. While I got back into my many layers of clothing, the two of them kept yelling and fighting, biting and slapping. If Benny didn’t call the cops, the neighbors soon would.

I got out of there. I’d barely made it to Washington Ave. when Five-O rolled into Washington Gardens. I don’t think anyone was arrested that day, but Quincy was served with a protection order, a PFA. This is how a typical visit to Benny’s house went.

The next day, on the Block, Benny had flipped Quincy’s Harley Davidson over in the street. Mark and I turned it upright again, polished off the gas tank and straightened the mirror. It was a pretty shitty thing to do, whichever thing you pick: the bike, the bite, the belligerence. Just bad behavior all around on Benny’s part.

When we got to Washington Gardens this night, Benny didn’t answer his door. It was late, it was cold, and I figured he got drunk and passed out. I tromped through the nearly two feet of snow, each step penetrating the shell of ice formed on its surface, and knocked on his front windows. When he didn’t respond, I kept tromping around the building and knocked on the back windows. Then I hollered into the bathroom window, which I knew would be unlocked, and which I could open just enough to yell through. He didn’t respond, so I tromped all the way back around to Trake.

“What now?” I asked.

Trake just shrugged. “Let’s go get beer,” he recommended. It wasn’t the worst idea he’d had this night, so I agreed. We walked to

Cumberland Farms. We bought smokes and a couple cheap beers and were spanging in front of the store when the cops rolled up.

“What are you guys doing on this side of town?” one of them playfully asked. “We got transferred to this beat so we wouldn’t have to see you anymore.”

“We’re visiting a friend,” Mark said.

“Well, behave yourselves,” one of the cops advised. “We don’t want any calls about you.”

Right after the police left, a guy came out of the store and gave us an 18-pack of Budweiser aluminum bottles. This was a nice gesture, but I would have enjoyed the beer more when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better, or need anything stronger. We headed back to Benny’s place.

Ben still didn’t answer his door. Again, I tromped through the snow and ice and knocked on his front windows. He didn’t respond. I kept tromping and knocked on the back windows, then hollered through the bathroom window again. This time I also checked the back door. It was unlocked. It only led to a vestibule, but it was warm. There were stairs to the upper apartments and two doors: one to Ben’s place, the other to a neighbor’s.

I tromped back around to Trake to report what I’d discovered. The Mayor made these sorts of executive decisions if he was available for counsel. He gave the green light.

So we both tromped through the ice-covered snow and entered the small hallway. We sat down in front of Benny’s door and each popped a bottle-shaped can. I was halfway through my second one when Trake finished his first. He decided he was going to sleep. He rolled over on his side and fell right off. I sat there drinking, wondering what time the bus might come in the morning. I figured it would be around the crack of dawn, maybe earlier. I popped the clutch on a third bottle-can and leaned back, considering whether I should sleep or keep watch.

Before I reached a conclusion, Ben’s neighbor stuck his head out his door into the vestibule. “What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled. “You can’t be out here! How’d you get in here? You have to leave!”

He shut the door. I could hear his heavy footsteps as he stomped across his apartment. Then I heard him violently pounding on Benny’s front door. “Ben! Ben!!”

“Mark,” I said, nudging Trake. “Come on, wake up.”

The neighbor was really pounding now. “Bennn!! You can’t have your drunken bum friends sleeping in the entryway! Bennnn!!”

“Come on, Mark,” I kept nudging. “Wake up!”

Mark sat up, looking frazzled. “We gotta go,” I said. Then I heard the neighbor speaking more quietly and controlled. “He’s on the phone with the cops,” I told Mark.

So we both scurried out of the vestibule and tromped through the icy snow. Before we could escape from Washington Gardens, the cops were already there.

Of course it was the same two cops from Cumberland Farms. They weren’t happy, but they weren’t surprised, either, especially when we explained what happened and that it was Ben we had come to visit. They didn’t arrest us, or CTO us, or issue us a PFA or anything of that sort. I think they may have pitied us more than anything. They just told us to make our way back to the Block.

So on we tromped, through nearly two feet of snow, penetrating the ice every step of the way, all the way back to the Old Port. We walked in the street when we could, but it took hours to get back downtown. It was about four in the morning when we reached the waterfront. We went to the Cut to watch the sunrise and waited for the seagulls to wake up and keep us entertained.

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