News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience: Book II

by | Jul 3, 2020

Kenneth W. Beek during his days on the street. photo/Joanne Arnold

Chapter 1: SOS

“Uncle … what you do?”
— James Peter, on the Block

Whenever I would find myself in jail, the Department of Health and Human Services would also find me there.

Initially I’d been dealing with the Biddeford DHHS office. When my daughter Rachel turned 18, they reduced my child support accordingly. When I moved to the City of Portland, my case was transferred to the DHHS office ​there​, and in Cumberland County Jail it was ​the Portland office​ that located me​. I received mail from them within one week of incarceration.

Upon my transfer to the Middle of Nowhere (York County Jail), which became my new address, my case was again transferred, this time to the Sanford DHHS office. I soon began receiving mail from them. They sent a letter claiming my original divorce agreement didn’t specify that I would stop paying support for my “elder” child before my younger child reached maturity. They adjusted my child-support debt as they deemed fit, doubling the amount owed. They sent another letter shortly thereafter stating that they intended to tack my wages — ​were I to ever make money again —​ at 60 percent. These were not the sort of jail letters for which I’d been hoping when my name was called at mail roll.

I worked in the kitchen at YCJ in exchange for time off my sentence. The deal is supposed to be two for one: for every two days you work, one day is subtracted. I’m no Roger Penrose, but calculating your release date isn’t calculus. It isn’t even algebra. I did the math, and my revised release date landed on Aug. 17th — Toni’s birthday.

I thought about Toni every day I was locked up. I’ve thought about Toni every day since before we even got together. I still do. I can’t help it. I don’t know if that’s ​normal​. I don’t know if she ​ever​ thinks about me. That doesn’t change the way I think, or feel. I don’t want to think about her. I don’t want her back. I don’t want to love her. Love is dangerous. Love is frightening. Love is painful. At least it is when you’re in love with Toni.

I got my new release date sometime in July. The jail figured it to be Aug. 19th. Then they popped a hold on me and held me longer. I didn’t fight it. I didn’t even complain. I just accepted it as Fate. Sometimes that’s how I determine the Next Right Thing. If I’d gotten out on the 17th, I would have tried to find her. Because I got out on the 20th, I didn’t. It was as simple as that.

I’d gotten fat, which is hilarious considering I never enjoyed a single bite of food. I would gorge myself in the kitchen just so I wouldn’t get hungry before bed and not be able to sleep. I had gotten so fat I couldn’t fit into my clothes. The jail gave me sweats to wear out of there, which was better than wearing the three-quarter pair of jeans I had on when I arrived.

I was happy to be out, but I had to get back to Portland. Hitchhiking got me there in less than three hours. I was dropped off at ​exactly​ the same spot the cop first grabbed hold of me the night of the Christmas Tree lighting. I was back at Preble.

It was still summer, so most folks were off taking advantage of the sun. Not many people were hanging out on the benches. One of the first ones I saw was Foxy.

“You son-of-a-bitch,” I said. “I’ve had that damn ​‘Dance With Me​’ song stuck in my head for nine months!”

“Really?” Foxy said, smiling with pride. “I’m flattered.”

Jeremy always said the song was a Hoagy Carmichael rip-off, but I hadn’t been singing ​“Stardust”​ for nine months. As writers, we’re all ripping somebody off. If you get away with it, great. If you get sued, you were successful. It means you made enough money that someone wants to take it from you. That’s what success is. Civilizations are constructed and dismantled on that premise.

Then Foxy asked me if I’d heard Jay died.

“Jay Becker was a good friend of mine,” I said. “I heard about it, and it really sucks.”

He meant Pony Tail Jay. He had frozen to death in a snowbank. I guess Foxy thought he and I were friends. He was mistaken, but I hadn’t wanted the guy to die. It turned out several other guys I met those first few weeks in the Little City had also died. Somewhere around 50 homeless people bit it that year.

I was at Preble less than an hour when a cop saw me tip a beer on the benches. He told me to “dump it out.” I wasn’t arrested, but he made sure I received a ​Suspension of Services​ (SOS) from the Resource Center. It was only a few days, but it still sucked. I never even made it in the building and I was booted out. I headed for the Old Port. I needed money.

This was when I first met Joe Fish, a.k.a. The Griz. We’d been in jail together, but I’d been in jail with most of the people on the Block. Not all of them became a friend. The Griz was my friend. This guy was the spitting image of Grizzly Adams, homeless in the 21st century. He was a big, burly bear of a man, a man of few words but much fur. He was more of a bear than that grizzly, Ben, from the famous TV program.

The Griz was with Bobby Chops, the class clown of the Crew. The two of them each had a liter of vodka and smokes, so I didn’t need money after all. We trekked to East End Beach. Being an Old Orchard Beach bum for 20 years, it didn’t impress me much. It didn’t even seem like a beach — more like a parking lot near a cove. The nicest thing about the place was that it had port-a-potties.

Right when we got there, Chops dropped his bottle. He fumbled to catch it, preventing its total annihilation, but it landed neck down and the top broke. The vodka inside didn’t last long. We just kept spinning it shot for shot, ​trying not to press the sharp glass against our tough-guy lips, until it was empty. That pretty much set the mood for the afternoon. We were all passed out within two hours. Between jail and the cold climate of Maine, I hadn’t felt sunshine in years. I got a pretty nasty sunburn as I lay there.

That night I checked into the shelter in order to register my homelessness with the City of Portland, and also to charge my phone. They bedded me at the overflow at the Resource Center, which carried a sense of irony. After eight in the morning I’d be in violation of the law by remaining on the property where theysheltered me.

The boundaries began to seem absurd, getting ​more blurred​ the more I attempted to observe them. If you saw me that night, following the typical migratory flow, I would have appeared as part of the wave of homeless-shelter dwellers. Cast out the next morning, I would have exhibited the properties of a particle, separate and alone.

I hadn’t intended to sleep inside, but as I lay there charging my device in the dim light of the overflow, I dozed off. When I opened my eyes, I reached for my phone. All I found was a charger. My phone was gone. I immediately went to the desk and informed the staff. They basically just shrugged.

“Was there anyone else around me?” I asked them. Back in those days, you could request a particular mat. It being summer, the shelter overflow wasn’t as overflowing as it would be in cooler weather. I’d chosen a spot near an electrical outlet, quite removed from the rest of the people there.

“Only Timon,” was the reply, as a staff member pointed to Kong.

“Then it was him!” I said.

Staff called him over. “Timon, do you have this man’s phone?” the worker asked.

“No, no,” he said in a heavy accent.

They asked Kong to empty his pockets. Different items piled up, including multiple phones, but not ​my​ phone. The worker looked at him suspiciously. Then he tapped one of Kong’s other pockets. We both heard the knock and could see the shape of a phone beneath the fabric.

“What’s this?” the worker asked, tapping a second time.

“That’s my gun,” Kong said, shaking his head. “No take out here, no here.”

The city employee working for the shelter, himself an African refugee, suggested to Kong that we go to the bathroom to see this gun. When we got to the bathroom, a very short walk away, the pocket was empty. When we exited the bathroom, Kong just kept walking, right out the shelter door.

“That’s it?” I asked the worker. “You’re just gonna let him leave?”

“There’s nothing I can do,” the man replied. He was right. I knew that. We hadn’t even had the power to demand Kong empty his pockets, only to ask him to do it.

“No,” I said. “You’re right, but there’s something I can do.”

I shot out the door and, grabbing Kong by the shoulders of his leather coat, slammed his head into a small tree growing in the Resource Center’s courtyard. Then I dragged him into Portland Street, toward the parking lot where I had slept the night before my arrest last year. Handsome Bob was standing in the middle of the road, dazed and confused, drunk and dirty, probably wondering when I’d gotten back … and what the hell I was doing now.

“Hey, Bob,” I greeted him, without slowing my momentum. I was getting my phone back. Then the cops showed up.

“Stop right there,” they said. I stopped right there, still holding my prisoner. “Let him go,” they ordered.

I let him go, but I took advantage of the laws of physics when I did, so he’d hit the ground with a little more force.

That was it, though. My calendar, clock, address book, photo gallery, phone and jukebox — the only item I owned that I wasn’t wearing — was gone, and I wouldn’t be getting it back. That was my only connection to Toni. Her number was in the phone. After nearly 10 months in jail, ​six months without dialing the digits, my mind had completely wiped them.

This was also the first time I met James Peter. Kong is his uncle. James has persisted in his efforts to get me to forgive Kong, but I can’t say that I have. Even if I did, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him … and I have a rough idea how far that is.

photo/Joanne Arnold

Chapter 2: A Light Night

“They are more human and more brotherly towards one another, it seems to me, than we are.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

In complete disregard of the ​SOS,​ I was drunk and laying on a bench in front of the Resource Center, soaking up sunlight despite being burned the day before on my alcoholic adventure with Bobby Chops and the Griz. I was hungry and too wasted to make it out back to the soup kitchen. Then I heard the paper bag ruffling by my ear.

It was a bagged lunch. I was familiar with the bag lunch. Once upon a time, the Resource Center distributed these meals in the courtyard at dinner hour, as an alternative to the soup kitchen, presumably for the very reason I couldn’t make it there this day.

I jumped up and saw a guy by the door where they were handing them out. I staggered over and hollered in just before it shut. “Can you please grab me one too?” I called to the caseworker, trying to save her a trip.

“You just gonna cut in line?” the guy standing there asked, angrily.

“I’m not cutting,” I replied. “You’re the only one here. That’s not a line.” Technically, it still constituted a line, albeit a short one. And I probably could have said nothing more, but I added some Napoleonic philosophy (Dynamite, not Bonaparte): “And you don’t have to be a dick about it.”

“Really?” he said, as we were each handed a bag. “Why don’t you come around the corner with me?”

Alpha mentality, jail mentality, street mentality — whatever mentality you want to apply here; maybe even just man mentality, ​human nature​ — took me over. This guy had just challenged me. I’m not a punk. I didn’t even address him. Trake was nearby. I handed him my supper. “Hold this, Mark,” I said. “I’ll be back in a minute to eat it.”

I wouldn’t be.

We got around the corner, off the property and into the imagined buffer zone, and he set his bag on the ground. The next thing I remember is trying to push myself off that same ground, blood pouring from my nose and mouth and forming a considerable puddle beneath me. I’d just gotten my ass handed to me.

Neighborhood kids were screaming, women were crying, guys were nudging each other with elbows and making jokes. Crazy Jane was standing over me, crying, frantically explaining that she had called 911. The ambulance and police cruisers had already arrived. He had knocked me out.

I’m not one to go to the hospital, willingly. I refused at first, but the cops convinced me to go. They were pretty concerned because I was pretty mangled: broken nose, broken teeth, bathed in blood.

At Mercy​,​ on State Street, I noticed the hospital hallway was lined with beds on both sides — ​beds containing people who would not be getting rooms — and everyone in those beds wore a necklace with the same homeless badge, the dog tag for the shelter residents of Oxford Street.

I lay there a few hours, gradually realizing this was as much help as I was going to receive. Noticing the clock, I also realized I had very little time left if I wanted a drink. I still had to spange money to get the drink and it was after eleven o’clock. Last call is one o’clock. I had to go to ​work.​

By the time I got to Congress Street I had spanged enough money for four high-gravity beers, but I had no ID. This is another way the 21st century sucks. It’s probably just another way of dumbing down the masses, too, as well as keeping people from having to take responsibility. The drinking age is 21. At the time of this story I was 46 — ​a considerably weathered 46 — but it wouldn’t have mattered had I been 96. Without an ID — ​one with a barcode that Big Apple, the only store open at this hour, can scan — I couldn’t buy beer.

I ran into Ox on the way and tried to persuade him to go, but he wouldn’t. I was disappointed, but I also understood. Ox is as big as an ox (​hence the name) and his legs were in far worse shape than mine. He was spanging himself. He would’ve had to stop working ​just as traffic was about to pick up for the last time that night, then get back up the hill he had no need to travel down. He spun a quick beer with me, consoling my condition, and I was off to the Block.

I couldn’t find ​anybody​. It was now within the last half hour of last call and I was standing on the corner of Park Ave. and Forest, across from the beer store, just spying on everybody, trying to spot a potential buyer. I might have felt like a teenager again — ​I spent much of my teenage years this way —​ if not for the extra hundred pounds and the broken-down body carting it around.

I heard someone behind me and turned to see two young lovers embracing on the sidewalk outside Rickey’s, a bar I never would have imagined people like that would enter. I didn’t want to interrupt their intimacy and passion, but they were my ​Obi-Wan Kenobi​, my only hope.

They were very accommodating. I explained what I wanted and gave them my money. They were unfamiliar with the Daddies, and when they returned with four beers I saw they’d gotten the order wrong. They had purchased light beer. I didn’t mention their mistake, but they insisted I take my money back anyway. They were deeply sympathetic to my condition: beaten, broke, broken, homeless and alcoholic. I should have been sorry for myself. But I wasn’t.

When I got back to the Old Port I found Handsome Bob and the Griz sitting on the bench in front of Old Port Tavern, a.k.a. “​the Point​” or “Shirpa’s Point.”

“What the hell happened to you?” Bob asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Some little guy beat the piss out of me.” The Griz found my response hilarious. He had a good laugh about the light beers, too. But the three of us drank the light beers and a couple Daddies the two of them had while I made joke after joke about the whole fiasco, keeping them in stitches. I’d just had all my front teeth knocked out over a bagged lunch I now wouldn’t even be able to chew.

That’s almost as ridiculous as having your nose broken and being sentenced to 13 months in jail over half a cigarette. Less than 48 hours after being released, my nose was broken again, along with my teeth. I had to joke about it! I even had a twenty-dollar hit while we sat there, with the line, “Excuse me, could you spare a little change? I’m trying to raise money for facial reconstruction.”

Chapter 3: Officer Penis

“[T]he unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men.”
— Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

I had been released from jail in time for the final week of summer-tourist season, which in Maine runs from Memorial to Labor Day. I spanged around the Old Port, traveling to the Block just often enough to get robbed, beaten, sunburned and sick. It was an enlightening week, a hell of a week. Labor Day weekend was now upon us and ZZ Top was playing in town.

It was the next Big Thing for the Crew. Everyone was going to the show. It was on the Maine State Pier, outside, so we could see and hear the band for free. I’ve paid to see ZZ Top before and they’re worth the money, so I was psyched.

On the way there I stopped at the Point with the Griz and Johnny Green Eyes to spin a beer. The staff of the Old Port Tavern never took any offense to the homeless citizens on the bench out front — in fact, they were always friendly and kind to us. Across the cobblestones was Beal’s family ice cream parlor, and a clothing store, Mexicali Blues, had shops on both sides of the street. As we sat there a cop rolled up on us. He got out of his SUV and looked ​right at me​. “Dump it out,” he said.

“Dump what out?” I asked. I wasn’t playing dumb. I didn’t have any booze on me.

“The beer.”

“What beer?”

“​That​ beer,” he said. He pointed to a beer on the ground in front of us, but it was closer to both the other guys than it was to me. I shrugged, got up, and dumped it out, squatting as I did so, so it wouldn’t splash. When I stood up again and looked at the cop, he looked back at me with the hairiest eyeball I’d ever seen. This guy was tall, dark and mean-looking. This was Officer Penis.

“Don’t look at ​me​ like that,” I said with contempt.

“You must ​want​ to go to jail,” he deduced.

“I don’t fear you ​or jail​,” I replied. “But, could you please cuff me in front? My shoulder is killing me from the last time I was arrested in this town.”

He made sure to cuff me in back, and to inflict as much pain as humanly possible doing it. I spent the rest of the weekend in jail. I’d barely survived a week of freedom this time out.

That’s how the next year or so went. If two weeks passed and I hadn’t been arrested, I ​prepared ​to be arrested, because I knew it would happen soon. Officer Penis and I would come to despise each other. Maybe we already did that day at the Point. We were on different sides in all of this. He knew that as well as I did. What I didn’t know was that his side was ​Beat 2. Another thing I didn’t know was how much terrain Beat 2 encompassed. I was soon to find out.

When I got to CCJ it was full of homeless people: Todd, Bobby Chops, Tanner, Modu, and others I knew, as well as many other transients I didn’t know. In fact, when I got out, Johnny Green Eyes got released with me. He was arrested about an hour after I was. There’s always a lot of homeless people in jail, but I’ve come to realize the cops do a sweep just before busy holiday weekends. They lock up as many of us as they can.

The author and Joe Blaze (right). photo/Joanne Arnold

Chapter 4: Normal People

“We don’t want you where normal people can see you.” I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that by a cop. They said it to Joe Blaze and me at least three times over the course of two days during one winter a couple of years back, when we were in the streets morning and night, nowhere to go but benches and doorways that didn’t belong to us.

I didn’t fully appreciate how abnormal I’d become until the police started to arrest and harass me on a regular basis. I didn’t plan to be in a doorway with nowhere to go, or parked on a park bench trying to get high or get a drink in me, or sleeping in basements, parking garages and ATM lobbies. These are just the results of lifelong drug abuse, alcoholism, and a solid refusal to conform to society.

Some people sing and tell tales about outlaws. I actually ​am​ an outlaw. It’s not a decision I made at some point in my life. It’s the nature of my being. If the law is wrong — ​and the law is rarely right and seldom just —​ then I will not submit. I will live outside the law. I’m an ​outlaw.​

Bobby calls us pirates and has his comic book, ​The Pirate Ship,​ and certainly the comparison is not too far off. In fact, as a group there’s a definite pirate mentality, including a hierarchy of responsibility and reward. We also live almost 45 degrees north of the equator and very close to the sea — ​crew members often falling into the bay, drunk, occasionally even drowning—​ so we dress for winter on the coast of Maine and look like pirates, dirty and unshaven, somewhere between boisterous and belligerent, singing dirges and ballads. If we lived in the Southwest, we might have been banditos. But no matter where I am or who I run with, I’m an outlaw.

How do ​normal people​ think? What do they do?

I don’t have the answers, but if the world is normal, ​and I believe that world to be fucked up, why would I want to be normal? I’m governed by my own sense of right and wrong, which is based on the precepts I learned as a child and still practice today. Interestingly, the ​Five Precepts​ of lay Buddhism, which I learned much later, sum up those rules fairly well. The ethics are pretty simple: Liberty and Justice. We don’t have anything like that in the USA, unless you can manage to get off-grid. So we quest for Liberty and Justice the best we can.

I don’t believe in “victimless crime,” and I believe most government is interfering with my Liberty. By ​my​ philosophy,​ I​ have been the victim of crime every time I’ve been charged, convicted and made to serve a sentence for “crimes” without a victim other than the State.

These ​victimless crimes​ led to my being homeless in the first place, and all bets are off on the streets. You do what you do to get by and you take your lumps. Sometimes the lumps are literal, other times they’re legal. I’ve held to my ethics, maintaining my integrity in the face of great challenges unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t had similar circumstances to endure.

By that measure, I believe you ​can be​ a good outlaw. What I don’t believe a person can be is a ​good cop,​ and here’s why. Generally speaking, there are three possible options for cops:

1. There is the officer who believes the law is the Law, and the Law is infallible. There is no flexibility in this belief. If you violate the Law, you simply deserve to go to jail, without exception.

2. There is the officer who acknowledges the law has its flaws and interprets any situation in light of the circumstance. You ​may be​ allowed some flexibility. This, however, is taking the law into the hands of an individual. While this is my own philosophy, I’m an outlaw. This cop is also an outlaw.

3. There is the officer who is in the business of law enforcement for selfishly personal reasons, either profit or power. This is the so-called “crooked cop.” This cop is also a ​common criminal​ — or an uncommon criminal, actually; common criminals wear no badge.

The first two options are examples of good people. You can be a cop and be a good person. I believe that. But I don’t believe that a cop can be good.

When I’m in jail, I think like a prisoner. When they lock me in my cell, I imagine the world outside. I long for the sunshine and fresh air. I remember the enormous expanse of space, with its trillions of stars — ​solar systems, thousands of billions of them — and think, “Of all possible worlds, this closet is mine.”

When I was homeless, I thought like a homeless man. I would lay down somewhere to sleep, ​often under the open sky and a mere couple thousand of those visible stars that have overwhelmed humanity with their brilliance and numbers since before history. I would recall the feeling of being in a cell and think, “At least I’m not in jail.”

I think about what it all means, and if it means ​anything at all​. I wonder why more people don’t spend more time thinking about ​Purpose​. Why would you get up and go to work every day for decades just to go home and watch meaningless television or play pointless video games? I suppose if that’s what you want to do and the meaning of life is the pursuit of happiness, then you have fulfilled your purpose in life. It doesn’t seem quite enough for me.

I’m examining the world from every angle I can grasp, sifting and sorting out what I can figure with the faculties I have, evaluating the data to determine how I feel about any given topic. I try not to be judgmental, always aware that Nature is vast and varied. Social conscience is no moral compass, so one has to be critical, and that requires guidelines. But how are these lines drawn? Through an assessment of different philosophies and an evaluation of the Law in relation to the main points I know to be Just, I determine my own ethics. My personal guidelines remain within the ​Five Precepts.

Before I was released from jail, I asked several CO’s — ​being on friendly and familiar terms with many of them —​ to define what a crime is. Not even one could offer a definition. During that bid, I also asked most of the CO’s at YCJ if they’d ever heard of the ​Universal Declaration of Human Rights,​ and I never came across one who had. Their job is literally to imprison fellow citizens, and yet they have no idea what crime is or any real concept of human rights.

Is that ​normal​?

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