News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience: Book II

Chapters from an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

by | Jan 24, 2021

The author during his homeless days in Portland. photo/Joanne Arnold

Chapter 16: It’s Only Pastrami

 “…we have to give him a hiding to bring him to his senses.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front 

It was quiet in the Cut that morning. It usually was. That’s one of the many things I enjoyed about the place. While I sat there observing the activities of the bay, where seagulls were the loudest things around, just over a mile away at the Resource Center, hundreds of people were behaving similarly to the gulls: crowds, huddled together in obnoxious little sub-factions and cliques, scavenging and fighting one another for whatever they considered necessary in the struggle of the street.

Trake and I sat in the Cut, sipping occasionally, speaking less often than sipping, soaking in the surroundings. We never got a penny for our thoughts, but to think peacefully was priceless to us.

Around lunchtime, Foxy and the Griz showed up. Talking was OK by this time of day, so I didn’t mind. Trake had been telling me some of his pallid tales. I enjoyed the old soldier’s stories, whether they had a point to them or not, and I liked the Griz. Foxy was a hit-or-miss experience. Sometimes I wanted to throw him in the drink, other times he was entertaining. A fellow guitar player and songwriter, he’s actually written a couple decent tunes — if you don’t have to listen to them dozens of times in a sitting. He seemed mellow this particular day. He had his guitar and his own money, so he wasn’t apt to drain me too much, fiscally or mentally.

I decided to go to Molly’s for a pastrami-and-Swiss with extra mustard — my standard fare. Foxy asked me to grab him one, too.

“You realize it’s a ten-dollar sandwich,” I cautioned.

“Ten dollars!” he exclaimed.

“Well, nine and change. So yeah, ten dollars.”

“I have it. I’ll go in with you,” Foxy said.

“No, no, no. Uh-uh. No way.”

Molly hates homeless people. I was the rare exception she allowed inside the store, but she still didn’t like me and treated me like a third-class citizen. I hated going there, but it’s the only place in town where you can get real red pastrami. Everywhere else it’s black pastrami, which isn’t pastrami at all but a sort of seasoned roast beef. Also, being allowed where most men in my situation were not made me feel like I was somehow maintaining my humanity.

We worked it out by agreeing I would pay for Foxy’s sandwich and he’d pay me back when I returned to the Cut. Then I headed into battle.

I ordered both sandwiches and attempted to make some casual conversation while I waited: a couple keen observations, maybe a pun or witticism. I always maintained my manners at Molly’s, even though I wasn’t being addressed with any manners at all. While Mick made my lunch I went to the counter to pay.

Molly never left the register when she was in the store. Come to think of it, I never saw her get off the stool behind the counter. This is where I experienced the most degrading humiliation. She always took my money, but never once said ​“Thank you,”​ or “‘Have a nice day,” or ​“Stay warm.” Nothing. I wasn’t human to her. I was just a seagull with a wallet.

I recall another day I went in for a sandwich. I’d flipped open the lids of a couple donut boxes, just to see what she had to offer. None of the donuts looked worth the money to this pauper, so I’d grabbed a Gatorade and the sandwich and gone to the counter.

“You gonna pay for what you put in your pocket?” Molly had asked me. I was aghast. Was she accusing me of stealing? The idea was absurd.

“What pocket?”

“The one you put the donut in.”

Flabbergasted, yet fully confident, because I hadn’t stolen anything, I made her an offer: “Pick a pocket. If you want me to, I’ll empty them all right now.”

She actually picked a pocket! So I emptied it. Then she picked another one! So I emptied that pocket, too.

Now, mind you, I had a lot of stuff in my pockets. I was homeless. She was basically searching my night drawers, my end tables, in a manner of speaking. After about four or five pockets there was a heap of stuff, homeless accessories — lighters, chargers, phone, tobacco, rolling papers, pens, paperwork, the New Testament, napkins — all piled on her counter, but not a single donut.

“OK,” she’d said. “That’s enough.”

Really? Actually, that was way too much. But like I said, manners are not Molly’s thing. I just walked out, embarrassed but somehow redeemed.

This day, as I stood at the counter paying for the two sandwiches, in walked Foxy. Molly immediately turned and pointed in his direction. “You know you’re not allowed in here!” she yelled.

“Why? What did I do?” Foxy responded. He looked utterly confused, but then again, he usually does. Maybe there was a prior incident, maybe not. With Molly, there needn’t have been.

Then, randomly, a cop walked up the steps. Molly curtly told the cop to remove Foxy, and the officer willingly obliged. I just stood there, not in any way acknowledging that I knew him.

I headed back to the Cut with the two sandwiches, but Foxy was nowhere to be found. About half an hour passed and he still hadn’t come back. I figured they must have taken him to jail, so I offered the pastrami sandwich to Trake and the Griz. It was ridiculously cold outside and the sandwich was just going to get stiff and difficult to eat. What a waste that would have been.

It turned out Foxy wasn’t arrested. Apparently he’d just been lumbering around the Old Port, rambling and disjointed. When he finally returned to the Cut, I informed him he still had to pay me for the sandwich. I wanted my ten dollars back. After all, had he stuck to the plan, he would have been the one to eat it. This entire mix-up was his doing.

Foxy refused to pay me, and I was pissed. ​I thought again about throwing him in the drink. He can seriously challenge my good nature. But I really was trying ​not​ to be the ​worst Buddhist ever,​ so I just let it go. Besides, I’d felt bad about not being able to feed Trake, and he ​was​ the one who ate it. So I took a shot off the bottle, lit up a cigarette and stared off into Casco Bay.

Along came Bobby Chops. Chops was shit-faced. He’d been into the vodka all morning and still had a bottle going. He sat down next to me and I gave him the warning: “Chops, I have a very low tolerance for bullshit right now.”

“Oh, Kenny,” he slurred from his lispy lips, “you know I’m cool. You know me, Kenny.”

He was right. I did know him, and I loved the guy. But he could really be annoying by the time his liver was floating in a fifth of 80-proof.

Of course, this is also when the cops showed up. It was Meade. He rolled through the Cut a few times every shift. He’d call out, “Kenny Wayne! You doing OK today?” I’d say I was doing well and he’d keep right on rolling.

One other thing about Bobby Chops, though: he hated cops; he hated anyone with authority. So when Meade asked me how I was doing, Chops answered, in a voice so slurred it was hardly understandable: “He’s doin’ fine, ya fuckin’ cunt pig! Why doncha get out of our alley, fuckin’ cunt pig? Beat it! Fuckin’ cunt pig!”

“Knock it off, Bobby,” I said under my breath. “Quit it. Come on, man.”

Then a solution occurred to me. “Meade,” I said, “can you call Milestone? He’s ​obviously had too much breakfast.”

“Sure, Ken. Just let me pull the cruiser around the corner out of the way.”

While Meade moved the cruiser, Bobby Chops kept carrying on. “Chops! Shut your fucking mouth!” I warned him.

“Kenny Wayne, you know I hate fucking cops! And I’m ​not​ going to Milestone​.”

I stood up, towering over Chops as he sat on a crate, and gave him an ultimatum: “Milestone or the hospital, Bob. You decide.”

“Fuck you, Kenny, I don’t…” He never completed the sentence. I delivered a quick combo of three slaps that sent him tumbling off the crate, unconscious.

Trake instantly recognized the gravity of the situation. When the cop had stepped away to call Milestone, Bobby Chops had been carrying on like a madman. When the cop came back — any second now —​ he was gonna want to know what happened.

Trake went over to Bobby and began kicking him, repeatedly, yelling as loudly as a guy with a tracheotomy could: “Bobby! Get up! Get up!”

When the cop returned, we were all standing over the unconscious man, Trake with one hand covering the hole in his throat so he could yell, the other arm swinging with every kick, like a rodeo rider on a bucking bull, yelling, “Bobby! Get up! Get up!”

Meade looked at me and asked what happened. “He fell off the crate,” I said.

“Mark, stop kicking him,” Meade said, almost in a pleading tone.

Then Foxy leaned over Bobby Chops. “I’ll help him up,” Fox said. He seemed like a regular Good Samaritan as he bent down and slid his forearms under Chops’ armpits, then wrapped his arms around his torso.

Now, the cop was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Foxy when this happened — and if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it even ​could​ have happened — but Foxy, ​the​ ​Good Samaritan, slipped his hands into Bobby Chops’ pockets and stole his money. I was the only one who saw him do it.

Milestone came along, we got the dazed and drunken Bobby Chops into the van, and they left. Then Meade bid us “Good day,”​ and he left, too.

I stared straight at Foxy. “I saw what you did,” I said, sharply.

“What?” he shrugged, playing dumb.

“Gimme my fucking money, Fox!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, attempting to convey a combination of homeless indignation and ignorance. But he wasn’t ignorant; stupid, maybe. And he knew I knew what he’d done.

“Foxy, you give me my ten dollars or I’m telling — ​after​ I kick your ass!”

I was, once again, and despite my best intentions, the ​worst Buddhist ever, and Foxy could plainly see I meant what I was saying. He reached into his pocket and fished out a ten.

When I saw Chops the next day, I told him what Foxy did anyway. If I’d told the cop, I would have been a snitch. But Bobby Chops was my friend. If I hadn’t told him, it would have been dishonest.

 

Chapter 17: The Why

“Ev’ry now and then, don’t ya know that I’m fallin’? / In the midnight hours, I’m callin’ out yer name … but there’s no-buddy there.”
— Foxy, “​Dance With Me”

Bunk asked for another hit off the bottle. It hadn’t been five minutes since his last shot. We were in a doorway on Preble Street with Handsome Bob and the Griz.

“Be careful,” I warned him. “This stuff slays giants.” I handed him the jug and he took a long haul, a chug.

“What the hell are you doing?” I scolded him. “Are you nuts? That’s it for you.” He’d just been shut off, and he was about to be totally wrecked. I could see what was happening, or so I thought.​

“Aw, come on, Kenny,” Bunk said. “Don’t be like that.”

“No, man,” I said. “You just fucked up. Wait a minute and see.”

I’d been telling everybody a joke, one of my longer ones, a story-joke. Then, suddenly, I was on the sidewalk, face-down. My hands were stinging with road burn, and Bunk was on top of me. He’d fallen on his face, but between his face and the concrete he’d encountered me, so my face took the brunt of it.

“Ugh,” I grunted. “Son of a bitch!” I got myself up and began dusting off, picking pebbles out of my palms. Griz and Bobby helped Bunk up.

“Aw, Kenny,” Bunk drawled in his drunken Down East dialect. “I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry, Kenny.”

“I told you to be careful,” I pointlessly stated. He hadn’t meant any harm. He just hadn’t listened to me and now he was paying for it. “It’s OK, Bunk,” I said. “Now, where was I?”

I gathered my thoughts and continued my story. Then slam! — I was on the ground again, in even more pain. I couldn’t believe it: Bunk had fallen on me a second time! I was furious.

“Bunk, that’s it! You’re done for the night,” I said. “You gotta go home.”

Bunk ​had​ a home now. It wasn’t a ​real​ home, but he wasn’t homeless anymore. He lived at the YMCA. (Where, by the way, it is ​not​ “fun to stay.” I can’t speak from firsthand knowledge, because they wouldn’t let me stay there, but just ask Handsome Bob. He hated it so much that he moved out to be homeless under his bush again. Quality is variable.)

Bunk agreed that he should retire for the night and started to walk away. “Bunk,” I said, “you’re going the wrong direction.” I grabbed him from behind by his shoulders, turned him around, walked him up the hill toward Congress Street, turned right, and guided him to Forest Ave. If I knew the way, I would take you home.

Later, in the Port, I saw one of the girls from Molly’s on the sidewalk outside Gritty’s tavern. She was leaving work — her moonlighting position. I’ll call her Laura Beam.

“They tell me at the store you’re homeless,” she said. Interesting ice-breaker she chose.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I confirmed.

“You don’t smell homeless.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Assuming you meant that as a compliment.”

“But you spend a lot of money in the store.”

“Yeah…”

“Where do you get it?”

“I ask people for it.”

“And they just give it to you?”

“Well, I tell a lot of jokes. But, yeah.”

“I couldn’t afford to spend money like that,” she said.

“I can’t afford rent,” I replied.

The truth was, I probably could have afforded rent. What I couldn’t afford was to claim the money I would make at a real job, because if I did that I wouldn’t be able to afford rent or spend money at Molly’s. Just between DHS and the IRS — nevermind all the other acronyms that would demand a slice of my paycheck — I’d be broke.

That’s why I was drinking. It was my only reprieve. I wasn’t in the streets because I was a drunk. I was a drunk because I was in the streets. There was no way out of the situation I was in — not without help. And no one was reaching out a hand to help me up. People were just kicking me while I was down.

“You wanna get high?” Laura asked.

“If you mean pot, yes,” I said. “I don’t do anything else. Well, I drink.”

“Yeah, just pot,” she said.

We walked past the Point, where the Crew was congregated. Everybody saw me but no one said a word, not even “Hi.” I guess they didn’t wanna blow it for me.

We smoked a bowl under a porch on Market Street. She offered to bring me to her place to stay overnight, but I declined. I gave her a little Buddha statue I had in my pocket, thanked her kindly, and headed to the Point, where I felt like I belonged.

“Who was the hot little number you walked by with?” Foxy asked.

“Just one of the girls from Molly’s,” I said.

“Well?” he prodded.

“She invited me over, but I said no.”

“Are you crazy?”

“I can’t be undressing in front of her,” I explained. “She thinks I don’t smell homeless. After I got a few layers off, she wouldn’t think that anymore.”

“That’s why you ask to take a shower,” Fox said.

He was a real Roadside Scholar. I picked up his guitar and started playing. It wasn’t long before a few people gathered to listen. One of them held out a twenty-dollar bill. As I reached for it, Foxy viciously snatched it from her fingers, like a seagull attacking the last French fry left on Earth. I started playing another tune while the small audience scurried away, looking back with repulsion at the lack of humanity on the bench.

Once they were out of earshot, I addressed the issue. “That’s ​my​ money, Fox.”

“How is it ​your​ money?” he mocked. “You don’t own a guitar.”

“You’re lucky I don’t smash the fucking guitar over your thick skull,” I said.

As I walked away, I could hear Foxy say, “This is a song… from a man… to a woman.” He said exactly the same thing, the same way, dozens of times a night, and then played the same song: “Oh… would… you… dance with me… un-der-neath the sil-ver light of the moooon? I’d hold your hand. Can I be your man?”

This is why his guitar gets smashed over his head.

 

Chapter 18: The Beast  

“In himself man is essentially a beast, only he butters it over like a slice of bread with a little decorum.”
— Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

We were working Fore Street. I was sandwiched between Trake and Handsome Bob in a doorway when I noticed a young, incredibly beautiful woman. She was slender, blonde, fair-skinned; the prototype of my ideal woman.

I blame Debbie Harry for this primal attraction. When I was a kid in the late 1970s and early ’80s, ​Blondie​ won me over. Back then, young ladies Harry’s age were older women. They seem like babies to me now, but this is a base response, instilled in me at the foundation of my personality. Attractions like that are not “second nature.” They’re simply Nature.

“Mark,” I said, grabbing ahold of his shoulder. “I may have to go to Hell for what I’m thinking.” I was speaking of lust. As she got nearer, my heart raced. This is ​the worst thing​ about getting old. And as she got even closer, I got a good look at her face. Suddenly, she wasn’t nineteen. She was nine.

“Katie?” I shouted, in shock.

She was one of my daughter’s childhood friends. Katie recognized me just as quickly and, screaming, wrapped her arms tightly around me. As her cheek pressed firmly against my own, her fit and supple figure warmed my hands and weakened my heart. I turned the other cheek, towards Trake. “I’m ​definitely​ going to Hell,” I said.

It was Katie’s twenty-first birthday, and she insisted on buying me a drink. I accepted, and we walked to a nearby saloon that was serving two-dollar well drinks. Her older sister, Destiny, was inside. Destiny had been about 10 years old the last time I’d seen her. Now she was on leave from the military and buying me — and her little sister — tequila.

I was happy to see the two of them. They were both so vibrant and beautiful. They phoned my Rachel inside the bar and told her what had just happened. It was nice to see they were still keeping in touch with one another.

I was able to speak to my daughter, which is always a great treat, but I felt horrible on another level. I was getting old and going nowhere. I knew none of us really go anywhere. We all end up ashes or diamonds. We all return to the carbon from whence we came. And I understood it was really about the Journey. It has to be. There’s no place to get to but the Cosmos, where we already are.

But I was still ashamed for some reason, sad to be the Beast I had become.

 

Thus concludes Transience: Book II. To get PDF versions of Books I and II in their entirety, become a Mainer subscriber at patreon.com/mainernews.

 

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